The Golden Age of the Golden Years

We’re living 20 years longer (YMMV) than 50 years ago.

Which presents a number of problems we’ve never encountered before. We’ve never had a global population this large, nor have such a large number of us lived this long. It’s both remarkable in terms of our success as a species, and comes with a number of challenges.

Although our bodies are living longer, if we don’t take care to keep our minds healthy, we are more prone to senility (a lay-term for a number of cognitive conditions). There are a number of ways to keep the body healthy, and are easy enough to find. Some decline is expected, however, how does one keep the mind, the brain, and nervous system sharp?

Dr Norman Doidge offers a lot of great advice in The Brain that Changes Itself:

Psychologically, middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before. Our bodies aren’t changing as they did in adolescence; we’re more likely to have a solid sense of who we are and be skilled at a career. We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before. We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills. Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning. By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engage the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.

That’s why learning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape for laying down sharp memories of all kinds. No doubt Fast ForWord is responsible for so many general improvments in thinking, in part because it stimulates the control system for plasticity to keep up its production of acetylcholine and dopamine. Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system—learning new physical activities that required concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material. Merzenich himself is an advocate of learning a new language in old age. “You will gradually sharpen everything up again, and that will be very highly beneficial to you.”

Should you choose to embark on this mission, to learn a new language (and you don’t really have to wait until you’re 60), then I suggest learning one that will ultimately be of some benefit. If there is a community where you live who speak a language other than the majority, that would be an excellent opportunity to build some bridges. Even more importantly, many languages are at risk of disappearing (as many already have). This is a loss that cannot be overstated. Every language is another way of thinking, of looking at the world, of perceiving our very existence and place in the greater scheme of things. If we reduce our languages, we hobble our perception, limit our thinking, and ultimately do everyone a disservice.

There are those who argue that cultural change is natural, no doubt, however, supplanting the native languages of the place with a few widespread languages is hardly a natural change. The legal framework of Canada ensures that French and English dominate, while the languages of this very country were attacked, primarily through residential schools. You can always go to England and France (and dozens of other places) to learn English and French. Where will you go to learn Inuktitut, Tsimshian, Algonquin, and the dozens of other languages that grew out of Turtle Island?

I strongly urge those who wish to keep their minds nimble into old age to seek out what languages are spoken around them, and to choose one appropriately.

Personally, I’m trying my hand at both Algonquin (the local indigenous language, overlooked in the great English-French debate that rages on in Canada) and Mandarin. I’d like to add Spanish and Arabic. Ambition has never been my weak point.

One of the most practical techniques in language learning I have stumbled over is laid out by Gabriel Wyner in Forever Fluent. His technique focuses on getting vocabulary, grammar, etc. into long-term memory as quickly as possible, such that needless rote repetition isn’t necessary. I’ve been using his technique, and can vouch for its effectiveness. In the end, it does require entering into conversations with native and fluent speakers, which is the whole point.

Here’s Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe on the subject

I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.

You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my world.

Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.


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