Losing a second language


Don’t miss the next live event!

Join us on our next live event! There are always live Q&A sessions or new webinars to learn from. Click here to sign up

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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

rachael photo

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

16 things poster
Get the FREE “16 Things” poster!

16 Things I Would Want If I Got Dementia

Get the FREE “16 Things” poster for your personal use—or better yet—your dementia care community’s staff break room!

I wrote this poem years ago, but to date, it’s the most popular piece I’ve ever created.

16 things poster
Shopping Cart