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PUMPING IRONY: Can You Say ‘Healthy Brain’ in French?

French lessons haven’t made me fluent, but at least my brain’s getting a good workout.

Last spring, My Lovely Wife persuaded me to attend a community education class so we could learn to speak French together. The idea, as it was presented to me, was that it would be helpful for the next time we visit her sister, who lives in Brussels. With a bit of French, she reasoned, I wouldn’t have to always shrug and mumble “Je suis désolé; je suis Américain.” whenever someone asks us a question. Besides, we could treat it like a weekly date night.

I know that when MLW has her heart set on something it does nobody any good to debate the pros and cons (such as the fact that half of Belgium speaks Dutch), so I signed on and a few weeks later we bicycled over to Theodore Roosevelt High School for our first class.

My high school years, I should note, were not a particularly constructive chapter of my life, so I was not entirely comfortable as I took a seat toward the rear of the classroom. But our teacher, who was young enough to be our daughter, quickly put us all at ease. Slowly and methodically, we worked our way through the basics over the course of several weeks, and I found the entire process to be quite invigorating, so much so that we signed up again in the fall.

I’d like to say je parle Francais trés bien, but that would be a lie. At a party last winter, I found myself trapped in a tiny kitchen with a friend of a friend who, upon learning that MLW and I were taking French, smiled and rattled off a series of unintelligible questions in what I assumed was perfect French while I stood there, dumbfounded, unable even to spit out a feeble parlez plus lentement, s’il vouz plait.

But fluency is not really the point; it’s the effort that counts. The aging brain, like any other part of your body, needs regular exercise in order to stay healthy. And learning a new language is quite a workout. Researchers aren’t ready to say that such activities will necessarily delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but it can’t hurt.

According to William Jagust, a professor of public health and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, people who are more “cognitively active” throughout their life build more efficient brains. And these more efficient brains may generate fewer of the amyloid deposits that are associated with Alzheimer’s. “Older people seem to activate or bring on line brain areas that young people don’t use,” Jagust told the New York Times in a recent article. “They have to work their brains harder. So people who stay cognitively active may use their brains more efficiently.”

And learning a new language, while not easy for the aging brain, is one of the best-preserved skills as we grow older — especially if we’d learned a second language earlier in life. That’s because our brain tends to retain its ability to grasp new rules of syntax and grammar.

So I guess I should continue to slog through my French lessons as best I can — whether or not they will someday allow me to carry on a conversation. It’s like Monday night basketball: I’m never going to play as well as Kobe Bryant (who, coincidentally, speaks Italian and Spanish), but at least I’m getting a good workout. Oui?

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