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"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more



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Subject: Multilingual senior stuck in one language, not his native tongue
Question: I was wondering if you have encountered this problem before. My 99
year old uncle who has been living in Canada, practising medicine and
speaking English for almost 70 years, has suddenly begun to speak
only Spanish. He lived in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. We can
also get him to speak French, as he lived in France shortly thereafter.
Neither of these is his native tongue. He grew up speaking Hungarian
and German in the home and at school. We think a Spanish speaking
caregiver has unlocked a door to a period of his life and closed off
another. We are anxious to get him to communicate with us again in
English as this Spanish speaking is causing a lot of problems. He is
otherwise in good health both mentally and physically. He
understands that he should be speaking English and acknowledges,
in Spanish or French, that he is having trouble speaking English. Do
you have any suggestions?

Reply: This is someone who has had a life of some complexity due, it would appear, to the warfare in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. He has reached the age of 99, which few people do. Most people who are 99 have some neurological impairment, and it might be worth recognising that there is some here, but not much apart from this one thing. But I don't really agree with my colleagues -- I don't think this is necessary and I think he would be better left untroubled.

During the Spanish Civil war he would be in his early 20s -- these are the young adult years that are often formative in establishing our identity, including our linguistic identity, and many old people return to this stage if their memories are disrupted by the neurological problems of ageing. It is possible that the Spanish-speaking caregiver has reactivated his memories of this time, but it is no-one's fault.

I don't think intervention is necessarily appropriate in someone of this age, and my suggestion to solve the problem (which may be temporary) is that the rest of you should develop your Spanish.


Anthea
Reply From: Anthea Fraser Gupta      click here to access email
 
Date: 23-Apr-2013
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Multilingual senior stuck in one language, not his native tongue    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (22-Apr-2013)
  2. Re: Multilingual senior stuck in one language, not his native tongue    Susan D Fischer     (22-Apr-2013)

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