Learning a new language in old age

21 October 2013

Most immigrant Swedes shop in Spanish stores, go to Spanish restaurants and meet Spaniards in other contexts, where they pick up many everyday phrases.

What happens to people who move to another country? Do they learn the language of the new country, or do they seek out culturally and linguistically related groups? Both, as it turns out. Swedes immigrating to other countries do as many immigrants in Sweden - seek out their compatriots, but really try to learn the new language.

It is increasingly common for Swedish senior citizens to take up residence on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. They often settle in “colonies”, but all contact with the public authorities must be in Spanish. Everyday life is also much easier to negotiate with Spanish skills. How do the immigrant Swedes manage?
“In general they do very well. They have a very pragmatic approach to language. Spanish becomes a viable addition to English and Swedish,” says Ulla Börestam, who has studied Swedish senior citizens who have moved to a city in south-eastern Spain.
Her research is important from several aspects. It teaches us more about how the elderly’s language development works, something that becomes more important as the number of elderly increases. The research also describes multilingual environments, which have been unusual in Sweden. Last but not least, Ulla Börestam’s research highlights the situation of immigrants to Sweden.

The pensioners want to integrate into Spanish society and learn Spanish when they moved there. But usually the road is not so smooth as they had expected.
“Things get in the way. Initially there are a great deal of practical issues to take care of, the apartment, electricity and gas supplies, registration with the tax authorities and other public agencies. There’s no time to learn Spanish.” It’s then easy to seek out Scandinavian networks.
However, many shop in Spanish stores, go to Spanish restaurants and meet Spaniards in other contexts. Where they pick up many everyday phrases. While hospitals typically offer interpreters, the tax authorities demand that foreigners have a Spanish representative, and to shop or go to the hairdresser does not require fluent Spanish.
“They also dress up their Spanish with body language and English. Invariably this means that they cope with the situations they face.”

Many look to socialise among their countrymen.
“This is the way of Swedes who emigrate and it’s always been this way. This security is everything!” Those who have lived in the country longer are also a link and a bridge to the new country. They can help with the language and with practical details.
As with everything else, language is something you have to practice to improve.
“The more social interaction Swedish pensioners have with Spaniards, the better their Spanish. As in Sweden though, it is not simple for these migrants to find the key to local social communities.”
However, she believes it’s a result that can be transferred to Sweden.
“If in some way we could guarantee that a large number of Swedes also reside in immigrant-dense areas, it would certainly benefit the immigrants' language development.”

A final lesson from Ulla Börestam’s research in Swedish senior citizens in Spain is that they usually manage fine even though they are not fluent in Spanish, or in fact not particularly good in Spanish. They speak some Spanish, fairly good English, they use signs and gestures and when necessary an interpreter.
“In Sweden perhaps we need to drop the idea that a language is something you learn in a classroom and then master very well,” she says. In addition, we must accept that even Sweden has become a multilingual environment. Numerous cities and countries have been this way for a long time and exactly like the Swedish pensioners abroad it usually works very well. It should then be possible to do it in Sweden too.

FACTS/Language skills of the elderly
There is no doubt that senior citizens can learn a new language. However, it seems apparent that their language learning differs from that of younger people.
Inferior memory, poor hearing and a lower tolerance for stress make it harder to learn and use a new language, as environments are often noisy and situations where you need the language can be perceived as stressful. The elderly also usually find it more difficult compared to the young to automate things like grammar.
Yet maturity and a general richer vocabulary can facilitate as well as whether the person has previously learned a new language.

Kim Bergström

Last modified: 2021-02-14