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Spanish Classes Offer Anti-Aging Help | Marinscope Newspapers

Spanish Classes Offer Anti-Aging Help

Patricio Tapia, instructor

Senior Life-Marinscope Newspapers, August 14, 2008, Andrea Hine
   Experts agree that as we age our brain cells lose the branch-like connections (or synapses) between them that are essential to thought. But never fear, they add, as anti-aging protection for the brain is readily available. According Dr. Michael Merzenich, a neuro-scientist at UC San Francisco, "The biggest find­ing in brain research in the last 10 years is that the brain at any age is highly adaptable. It is literally a learning machine. If you ask your brain to learn, it will do so - and it may speed up in the process."
   By exercising the mind just as we exercise our bodies for good health, our brains can be kept young and supple, said Merzenich. He recommends activi­ties that are engaging and rewarding to "kick" the brain into a learning mode, e.g., playing a musical instrument, tak­ing art or dance classes, or learning a new language.
   "The importance of men­tal stimulation cannot be overstated," he said. "It builds new nerve connections in the brain, improves physiological functioning and keeps memory sharp." Studies conducted at University College, London; York University in Canada; and Tel Aviv University's Herczeg Institute for Aging revealed that language acquisition in particular has a protective effect on the brain. It's a sort of use-it-or-lose-it philosophy, say researchers. Forcing the brain to learn a new language gives it flexibility that increases resistance to decay and reduces the likelihood of dementia in old age.
  These findings come as no sur­prise to Patricio Tapia, a native of Chile who has taught Spanish in Marin County for the past 18 years. Listing clients as diverse as College of Marin, the Kentfield School District (teach­ers only), the Tamalpais Adult and Community Education Program, Marin General Hospital, Kaiser Permanents and Petaluma Valley Hospital (where classes are designed to equip health-care workers with conversational skills need­ed in the medical setting), Tapia has coached literally thousands of students ranging from their 30s to late 70s "I've had many older students who have learned this language very well," said Tapia, "and since my teaching is done in a natural way, as children learn to speak a language, you certainly don't need the memory of an elephant. A far more important factor is motivation, as well as patience and perseverance. Whatever their age, students get as much out of my classes as they commit; 1poco a poco,' — a little at a time — it adds up to varying degrees of mastery.
   "Studies show that older people who keep their socialization skills age better, both physically and mentally. The chal­lenge of going to a class, participating and interacting with new friends and, in general, being up for the rigors of a new activity give everyone, but seniors in particular, a healthy boost." The camaraderie that characterizes Tapia's Spanish classes reflects his non­traditional teaching approach. "While I certainly cover all the grammatical basics, such as verb tenses and vocabu­lary, I also incorporate cartoon dia­logues, crossword puzzles and amusing stories to both help with the learning process and entertain my students, some of whom have been with me as long as 11 years."
   But Tapia's popularity and suc­cess are even more a measure of the man himself. "I don't come into the classroom with a long, serious face," he said."I'm an entertainer at heart, and use humor to enliven the learning experience. I genuinely care for my students and consider some of them to be extended family members as well as special friends. My students in turn come to care for each other as well, socializing and even traveling together, on total-immersion trips I offer to Spain and South America.
   For me, teaching is my work, my hobby, my passion, my life — and if it can also benefit more of Marin's people by helping them retain their mental acuity, my pleasure is even greater."
   Patricio Tapia will offer a basic con­versational class starting Sept. 3, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., at the Kumon Tutoring Center, in San Rafael. For further infor­mation, contact him at 806-8101 or visit his website at