Helen Abadzi

Language Maintenance: A day In The Life Of An Aging Polyglot

Most conference participants are young, automatize verbal sequences quickly, and find languages easy to learn. But by our early 40s, aging affects processing speed and retention likelihood. By age 65, some of the cognitive prerequisites needed for multilingualism wane considerably. Our memory tracks contain too much info, making retrieval harder, and working memory dims. At the same time, other capacities improve with aging, including executive function. Is it possible to remain a polyglot in older ages? How to maintain old languages and learn new ones in your 60s, 70s, and beyond? Life goals change, creating dilemmas of study time vs. loss of long-held identities. The presentation will review the little-known implicit memory system that creates speaking and reading automaticity. It will discuss the rationale for various maintenance routines as well as the socioemotional issues that arise when performance falters with age.

Ask the speaker a question


  • Susan says:

    Hello Helen,

    Thank you for your presentation. I did not only obtained knowledge on how to maintain languages, but I will also be able to use some of what you said in the learning of new languages.

    Greetings from South Africa.

  • ElderPolyglot says:

    I have a large collection of texts of the languages I have learned. In my younger days these were on tape, and in recent years I have digitized them.
    Audio files at normal speed are of limited use to learners, due to the limited working memory capacity. Many therefore are slowed down from tape or are used best with the low speed available in many mp3 players.
    People helped me and read some books on tape, notably the ‘Speak Malay” and Read Malay, Bangla for Foreigners, intermediate Bangla, Matthews’ Nepali, etc. Some materials therefore are unique. Other materials are obsolete and almost impossible to find.
    I have deposited texts and audio files to the website below, owned and bravely maintained by Eric Streit. It also has probably old the Foreign Service Institute courses as well as Defense Language Institute courses, Cortina, and many others.

    The search function is still being developed. Some files are listed as Helen Abadzi’s files. If you download, please leave a thank you note to Eric for his hard work.

  • MichaelJ says:

    Thank you for learning tips for my aging brain. I started studying languages again in retirement. I have always had memory problems, often resulting in embarrassing situations. Now that I have resumed intensive language study, I have found that my memory has improved in general for many other things.

  • PinAngel says:

    I really appreciate the honesty with which you approached the subject of aging and language acquisition. I will definitely be using your advice as I continue to mature in my language journey.

  • Mats_Eklof says:

    Thank you for sharing! I hope to find some of your talks online to go deeper in some subjects.

  • RonP says:

    Thank you for your insightful presentation and offering a window in your language learning world. I’ve always enjoyed reading your posts on the HTLAL forum and listening to some of your language stories online (e.g. singing a Hindi Bollywood song at the airport check-in desk). 🙂

  • Mariia Kharlacheva says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful presentation full of stories and practical advice! Absolutely agree with you about the apps. It’s not enough tonlearn the language let alone start learning a brand new one without any background.

  • Amanda Gillis says:

    Excellent presentation. Highly informative with very useful tips for language maintenance. Thank you very much! 🙂

  • esteban says:

    a fantastic talk, very inspiring. Thank you

  • Vessena says:

    Thank yo, professor. I think I might see you as a role model. There are not many female polyglots I have seen so far.

  • says:

    I really enjoyed listening and learning of your language journey. Thanks.

  • Gluis says:

    Such a wonderful talk. I, too, use bike time to study languages. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience!

  • ElderPolyglot says:

    Hello Sara,
    Thanks for the comment. Yes, there are solutions for older people. We need to listen to slowed-down audio and repeat at least 15 times per text.
    Please contact me to discuss.

  • EstherB says:

    I’m so interested in memory at the moment, and I want to thank you for the new to me ideas of explicit and implicit memory. I’ve been learning about “memory palaces”- have you tried this? I wonder if it would help with organizing existing memories for better retrieval.

  • conycatcher says:

    I should have taken a similar route to you for my career path. Not sure why I didn’t.

  • Jose31 says:

    Amazing history.

  • Anonymous says:

    Fascinating story. Thank you for sharing. I’m still to find out what would be the one job where one can use all one’s languages… Is working in any of the international institutions like World Bank a good place to practice all the languages? Or is it still random and you actually learned a new language because of a new mission rather than get deployed on one because you already spoke the local language?

  • Sara Manzi says:

    thanks a lot, Helen, very amazing life experience and so much passion and awareness.. I teach my mother tongue, Italian, to seniors in The Netherlands, and I experience a lot of frustration and sometimes demotivation in the classroom because they tend to forget words. Do you know if there are some books or good articles with practical activities for aged students learning a foreign language?

  • Claudia65 says:

    Dear Prof. Abadzi. Happy to see you again with a passionate video. Language maintenance and language learning at an advanced age are under-researched study fields. Thx for sharing your personal inspirational experience and your perspective as cognitive psychologist! You might watch my presentation in “education” so we can virtually meet again. Hope to see you again at a live polyglot event soon.

  • Anita-Lean says:

    You learned an amazing amount of different languages :). Great that you were able to use it during work. I do think it must have helped you so much to understand all these countries and their people.

    I will try to learn more songs, that is a great idea. It’s a great idea to study while doing sports.Having young kids and a job, I do find it difficult to prepare before though. But your example makes me want to give it another try and atleast put it back into my plan.

    Thank you Helen!

  • What a wonderful and rich life you’ve lived, Helen. Thank you for sharing!

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