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Ideally, expats should have a working knowledge of the language before they even set foot in their newly adopted country

I often hear expats complaining about the difficulties of learning Spanish, despite being well aware that their experiences as an expat would be greatly enhanced by making the effort to communicate in the language of their new country.

Sadly, many fail in the process, despite their best efforts and sometimes through no fault of their own.

Ideally, expats should have a working knowledge of the language before they even set foot in their newly adopted country. How often did we hear during the UK election campaign, for instance, politicians and the public complaining about immigrants arriving in the UK without a working knowledge of the language?

This lack of ability to communicate creates barriers, suspicion and resentment, and is one of the many reasons why immigration can become such a divisive issue in any community.

Life is not predictable, and for most expats, learning a language is a long and continuing process upon arrival. However, it can be fun and it is a willingness to try that is important.

I have often heard, and read reports indicating that learning a language after the age of fifty is very difficult, although many good teachers will dispute this. Certainly, the quality of teaching, materials used, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn are all part of the ingredients of any learning, be it with others in a group, as an individual, in small group lessons, or simply following a recorded language course.

I vividly remember that as a newly arrived expat in Spain, I signed up for a language course funded and promoted by the municipality. I attended the first evening with great enthusiasm until I met the other 39 newly arrived expats in my class.

The pointlessness and frustration of trying to learn for an hour in a class of 40 other middle aged people was sad to experience, and is only successful in putting people off learning a new language. Indeed, a few weeks later when I checked what was going on, the class size had reduced to just five people. Maybe this was the overall intention, but it is a very sad and destructive way to promote learning of a language.

Despite the difficulties and frustrations when learning a new language, there is also plenty of good news. A recent report claims that using Spanish in everyday situations, as well as regularly attending classes, can help to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The research claims that the first signs of dementia can be delayed by at least five years by learning a language.

Expats living in Spain are certainly at an advantage, and are most likely to benefit since those who regularly use the language are even more likely to fight off Alzheimer’s than those who have merely studied a language in isolation in their home country and then fail to use it in day-to-day situations.

Doctors have claimed for many years that thinking activities, such as Sudoku and crosswords help to ward off confusion and memory loss in old age. In addition, specialists claim that those who speak two or more languages have an even stronger chance of retaining their mental faculties. Well, I can take a hint; I’m just off for my Chinese lesson.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: www.barriemahoney.com and www.thecanaryislander.com or read his book, ‘Expat Voice’ (ISBN: 9780992767174). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle. iPhone/iPad and Android Apps: ExpatInfo, CanaryIsle and CanaryGay now available.

© Barrie Mahoney

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