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It’s never too late to learn a language

Lingo Flamingo founder, Robbie Norval

Walk into Dundonald House Nursing Home, South Ayrshire on a Thursday afternoon and you might just believe you’ve strutted into Cafe Les Fleur in Saint-Germain.

Candle-lit tables, adorned with cheque cloths, baguettes, cheese, coffee, the occasional glass of vino, Edith Piaf humming softly in the background, and the vital ingredient, residents speaking francaise.

So what’s going on? Well, Dundonald happens to be one of the latest care homes to embrace the power of language learning to transform resident’s day to day lives. The classes are provided by not-for-profit Lingo Flamingo, who have been providing their unique language experience to older adults and those living with dementia since 2015.

If, at first, you’re thinking it might sound a little strange to teach older adults and those living with dementia a new language, you’re not alone, but the purpose is twofold. Firstly, language learning is a therapeutic platform like no other, with research showing its ability to stimulate the senses, exercise the mind, create new connections in the brain, and prompt the recall of memories. Secondly, language learning offers a unique opportunity to bring together those in care homes, as well as family members and carers, to partake in a fun activity that puts everyone on a level playing field.

As Lingo Flamingo founder, Robbie Norval, points out, the classes are also about confidence and well-being, “apart from the cognitive benefits, we’ve found our classes really increase wellbeing and self-confidence. If an adult living with dementia can learn a couple of words, they think to themselves ‘actually, I can learn new things’. They don’t fear Alzheimer’s as much. They realise they’re not forgetting everything, which is a really important message as well.”

Lingo Flamingo also wants to see a change in how language learning in perceived, helping us all to relegate our linguistic memories of the disciplinarians from school drumming home grammar and imposing memorisation of vocabulary, and instead replace them with a fun, inspiring, relaxed experiences. Indeed, pop into one of their classes and you’ll see language learning as never before, with classes evoking different senses through exercises that encompass sound, touch, scent, feel, and taste. So, one week students might be singing That’s Amore in Italian, sculpting the elegant landmarks of France, or sipping away at Spanish wine. The next week they are perhaps playing traditional German games, discovering the traditions Spain through flamenco music, or reinforcing their Italian with a cooking session.

Scratch below the surface, however, and you’ll discover the classes are more than just something a bit different for care home residents. They represent a growing movement towards more humanistic, non-pharmaceutical interventions for those living with dementia. And this isn’t just a feel-good fad, Lingo Flamingo work with the University of Edinburgh to build upon an evidence-base showing that language learning can delay the onset of dementia. In fact, those who speak a second language tend to develop the disease 4 years later than those who can only speak one (as well as being more likely to recover from a stroke). Even more incredibly, the effects of directed language learning are visible after just one week!

These effects can be seen back at Dundonald House where the confidence-boosting affects of the French classes are bringing residents, and their families, together. Take Patricia, she’s been living with dementia for nine years, and has called Dundonald House her home for the past two. The French classes offer her, and her husband Eric, who visits each and every day, the treasured opportunity to do something together. As their daughter Mari explains:

“My Mum and Dad loved to travel, they went to Italy quite a few times and like to go abroad. These classes are something they can enjoy together, as a couple. And you know what the thing about it is? It puts everyone on a level playing field. No one can speak the language, no one has learnt that language before, everyone is just going there, and it’s jus the joy and camaraderie of joining in.”

Mari also says the classes have led to improvements in her Mum’s verbal ability and self-awareness, with Patricia picking up a book for the first time in months, and joining in with the learning activities presented each week. These effects aren’t just appreciated by family and friends, but the care homes themselves are seeing those who wouldn’t usually attend other activities joining in weekly and sensing improvements in the general well-being of participants.

As a social enterprise working in the care sector, Lingo Flamingo also recognise the difficulties care homes face and as such aim to make their classes as accessible and affordable as possible. In doing this they hope the benefits of language learning can be felt across the whole of Scotland. A key part in ensuring this fairness of opportunity is providing the chance to trial classes for free. So, really there’s no excuse, whether you’re based in the highlands or the lowlands, the town or the country, the east or west, get in touch with Lingo Flamingo today and see what all the fuss is about.


Edel Harris





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