Losing a second language

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I’ve written about this topic before, but it never ceases to amaze me. When people with dementia know more than one language, they almost always lose the language they learned second.

One of my new residents, Alberta, speaks only Italian. Her family told us that she used to speak English fluently and frequently. Now, though, that her dementia has progressed, Alberta only says a couple of phrases in English.

My experience has been that people who lose their second language usually still seem to understand the language when it is spoken to them. For example, my resident who spoke Spanish lost her English-speaking ability, but she still understood when we spoke English to her.

Alberta, on the other hand, seems to be losing her ability to understand English, too. The tough part is that neither me nor anyone on my staff speaks Italian.

I needed to take a picture of Alberta for her records.

“Hi, Alberta, can I take your photo?” I smiled.

“Ohhh, bella, bella!” Alberta smiled back, taking my face in her hands and kissing my cheeks.

She didn’t understand.

“Alberta, I need to take your picture,” I tried again, miming holding a camera with my hands.

Alberta just looked at me, confused.

“…Fotografia?” I tried, in Spanish.

Spanish and Italian obviously are not the same language, but it was my best chance to convey my message to Alberta. I speak enough Spanish to hold down a conversation, but I was hoping that she would understand.

“Oh, fotografia!” Alberta cried, excitedly. She smiled and posed for the photo.

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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