A few years ago, I read a newspaper article on dementia and multilingualism. According to the article, even bilingual people are less likely by some statistically significant percentage to get dementia or Alzheimer’s disease than people who know and use only one language. Apparently, one’s protection from memory loss becomes even greater with each additional language. Okay, so while we are on the subject, here’s a joke. What do you call someone who can speak three languages? Trilingual. What about two languages? Bilingual. And only one language? American! Alas...
Fortunately, I was blessed with a talent for languages. As a little kid, I was apparently quite a mimic. I used to conceal myself behind the big radio console—and they were bigger than kids back in the day—and do whole shows for visiting relatives and family friends. I could do Bing Crosby, Amos and Andy, even the Irish accent of Barry Fitzgerald: things I’d heard on the radio. (We’re talking World War II times, well before TV.) From when I was one year old, we, like many other middle-class suburban Jewish families, had a “colored maid,” a wonderful woman called Florine. My parents were out of the house a lot, so I hung out mainly with her. In fact, she stayed with us until she saw me safely graduated from high school. When I went to kindergarten, according to my parents, I came home one day with a note. “Your son has a speech problem.” It seems I was speaking my version of Florine’s Black English. I probably thought it was the source of her considerable power and would protect me in the world of strange kids and adults.
Anyway, I have meanwhile studied twelve languages and can do fairly well in eight. Why is that important? So, this year the United HealthCare’s visiting nurse visited my wife and me by Zoom. When she checked my short-term memory, I failed the test twice. Now at my age, 81 ½, my mother, who lived to be 95, was well into her dementia. The nurse sent me to my primary-care doctor. He was less concerned. Still, I decided to take matters into my own hands and began improving my Danish on duolingo.com. I completed the entire course in 120 consecutive days. With our French friend coming soon for a month, I’ve now kept going by starting Duolingo’s program in French, a language I know much better than Danish. It’s a longer process than getting two shots a few weeks apart, but for better or worse, I’ve decided to get my language vaccine.
Please God, not this!