For a couple dozen residents at Kendal, a weekly dinner date means speaking Spanish, German or French.
The language dining tables are not meant to teach novices, but rather to help residents with basic skills improve their conversation. Some residents are foreign-born. Others learned a foreign language in college or have lived or traveled extensively in foreign countries.
Retired physician Don Parker, a regular at the Spanish table, spent three years in Puerto Rico in the 1960s and has made more than a dozen trips to Latin American with various medical teams. “Each time I work at keeping my Spanish alive, and the table really helps,” he said.
Why Be Bilingual?
Being able to speak more than one language has many social, psychological and lifestyle advantages, especially when traveling to a foreign country. Researchers are also finding that bilingualism has many health benefits, including faster stroke recovery and delayed onset of dementia.
York University Psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok compared an aging population of monolinguals and bilinguals. “The bilinguals showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s some four to five years after monolinguals with the same disease pathology,” Bialystok says.
Bialystok thinks bilingualism rewires the brain and improves the executive system, boosting people’s “cognitive reserve,” meaning that as parts of the brain succumb to damage, bilinguals can compensate more easily.
At Kendal, the language tables are set up so that a resident can attend more than one. The German table meets on Tuesday, the Spanish on Wednesday and the French on Thursday.
Irv Lewis, who chairs the French table, was a research chemist who studied French and German in college. “We had to be able to read foreign journals,” he explained.
Irv’s job took him to France frequently, and he continues to visit the country every couple of years. “I’ve noticed my ability to converse in France is much better since eating at the French table,” he said.
Residents keep abreast of the news in those countries and share stories and photographs of their travels. But there’s plenty of talk about current affairs at home.
“The people at Kendal are very politically minded, and we’re no different,” Irv said.
One member of the Spanish table is Monica Fuquay, a native of Medellin, Colombia. She’s brought Spanish picture books and videos to the gathering, also candy from her mother, who still lives in Colombia.
“She’s the consummate teacher,” Don says.
Sometimes the group practices Spanish with flashcards or writing assignments, or by reading Spanish children’s books, such as Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” and poetry. And if they get stumped, Don has his smart phone nearby to check a Spanish dictionary.
The menu is not ethnic, and the French table includes wine with their meal, but not necessarily French wine.
There has been talk about offering other language tables such as Italian, Russian and Chinese, but there are currently not enough residents to make that happen.
Learn a Second Language
Since the tables are not intended to teach beginners, some residents have to study first. Larry Porter, a retired French college professor, took an online course in German so he could join the German table with his wife, Marjorie.
Duolingo is a top-rated, online language program, and it’s free. The lessons are organized by topic and in a game format, and geared to teach you to read, write, listen and speak in about 20 different languages.
Other ways to learn a second language is by visiting your local library and asking about instructional CDs and DVDs, or signing up for a continuing education class at your local college.
Still not convinced?
Other benefits to being bilingual include:
- More job opportunities;
- Better able to remember lists and sequences;
- Increased opportunity to interact with people from diverse backgrounds, both at home and while traveling;
- And increased self-confidence from learning a new skill.
Bon chance, alles gute, and ¡buena suerte!
In the past, Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years. Now we are happy to have her writing for the Kendal at Oberlin Community.