Dementia and English as a Second Language

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I’ve had a number of clients and residents over the years lose their ability to speak. Sometimes this happens early in the disease process, and sometimes it happens pretty late. Sometimes it never happens at all.

Other times, I’ve had residents who lose their ability to speak…English. What ends up happening, for many people who learned English as a second language, is that they’ll begin speaking their native language again. Even if they’d been speaking English for the last 50 years, their native language comes through.

When this happens, I’ve found that the individual actually does understand English, but just responds in their first language. While friends and family may be confused as to what their loved one is saying, oftentimes the person living with dementia knows exactly what everyone else is saying to them. (Hence why you still don’t want to talk about the individual like they aren’t in the room!)

Long-term memories are the ones that stick around. Knowing this, it makes sense why the language someone learned first would be the language that they retained the longest.

If you have a loved one who is speaking another language, but you can’t understand it, don’t panic. You don’t need to download any translation apps or buy any books. Of course, it’s helpful if you understand a few words, but it’s not necessary. Here’s the thing: you can gather all the information you need by listening to body cues and facial expressions.

It’s also important to note that I’ve had residents’ family members say to me, “I speak a little bit of Italian…and mom is just saying gibberish at this point.” Unlocking their verbal language isn’t going to unlock all the clues you need to assist your loved one. Just as many people living with dementia say nonsensical things in English, there’s a good chance they’re doing that again, just in their native language. 

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

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