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Learning a New Language at 50+

Who says learning a foreign tongue is best left to the young?

There I was—69 years old and going off on the adventure of a lifetime (my lifetime, anyway): starting over in a new country—Mexico—where they spoke a language in which I’d never had one day of instruction. People warned me, “At your age, it won’t be easy.” Others assured me that Spanish was a cinch (it turned out those people had never tried to speak it). My cousin, a university Spanish teacher, had more daunting words: “We tell our students they need to spend four hours studying for every hour of class time.”

My husband had recently died. As I started to recover from the loss, I realized I couldn’t afford New York City anymore—not the way I wanted to live—and I didn’t relish moving to a small town, where I’d just be able to scrape by on Social Security and whatever other small income I had. It suddenly seemed as if the worst thing would be for my tombstone to say, “She only lived in one country.”

As a country for someone in my position, Mexico seemed to have everything: It was close enough for my family to visit and for me to come back when I wanted to. I could easily return for health care—important, since Medicare can’t be used in foreign countries. It was south of the border, so no more cold winters. I’d confirmed on visits over the years that it was a big, beautiful country filled with friendly people. And, crucial to me, I’d be in the enviable position of living on the dollar in a peso economy.

I chose to settle in a small mountain city called San Miguel de Allende, where I’d gone on my first honeymoon, 40 years before. My then-husband hadn’t had a day of Spanish classes, but he seemed to manage beautifully with the locals (I forgot that his facility with languages had nothing to do with whether I had any—anyway, I hadn’t been married to him for the last 20 years). Besides the perfect climate and the beauty of the place, I learned that these days, San Miguel had a sizable gringo community, so maybe I wouldn’t have to rattle off the español with total fluency immediately. … Back to Article

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