Belinda was ecstatic. “He’s talking to me!” she cried out in Spanish.
Belinda was talking about her new best friend—the toy parrot our community kept. Unlike most of the other residents, Belinda spoke two languages. And, unlike most of the residents, Belinda was beginning to switch back to her native language.
This was a real problem, because none of the other residents spoke any Spanish. For many people with dementia, the ability to be completely bilingual, or even multilingual, fades during the course of the disease. Most people return—at least in some part—to their native language.
“Her English is actually great,” Belinda’s family had told us. “Or, at least, it used to be,” they had added.
It seemed as though Belinda had forgotten that she knew English. She could understand people who spoke to her in English, but she would only respond in Spanish. Sometimes she would utter English phrases—or even full sentences.
“Oh, que linda!” Belinda laughed, clapping, and continued to tell the bird how beautiful and wonderful he was. “You are a great friend,” she told the parrot in Spanish.
“You are a great friend,” the parrot repeated, in Spanish.