how to stay young

a sabbatical rest, day 92

There are many ways to stretch your brain, including crossword puzzles.

And then there is learning a new language, which studies show may delay dementia. Bilingualism improves cognition, apparently, and switching from one language to the other activates areas of the brain responsible for executive functioning. This helps keep your brain young.

I’m 68 and Katie is 70, so the effort we are putting into Nepali seems important, and not just for the health benefits. Meeting new people in new situations keeps you feeling young, which is of course relative. One study reports, on average,

  • Adults between the ages of 30 and 49 think old age begins at 69.
  • People who are currently 50-64 believe old age starts at 72.
  • Responders who are 65 and older say old age begins at 74.

But it’s relative: of respondents who were 65-74, only 21 percent said they feel old. I don’t feel old. And I surveyed Katie, who has taken care of several old people; she says you are not old until you are 95.

So learning a new language and the stimulation of interacting with people in a different culture is keeping us on our toes. The language is especially challenging. We are learning a new alphabet, and it’s so complex that even school children here prefer to study English, with its measly 26 letters. In the Devanagari script, there are 14 vowels and 36 consonants. Or 33, depending on whom you ask. But it’s even more complicated than that.


Take the 14 vowels. Each of them has a stand-alone letter, but 13 of them have a symbol that can be attached to a consonant to give it that vowel sound. So imagine the letter k. Then imagine that there are 14 versions of it, depending on which vowel follows it, essentially a different version for ka, kaa, ki, kii, ku, koo, kri, ke, kai, ko, kau, kan, kang, and kah.

Multiply that by the 36 vowels and then add the half consonants, which we haven’t started studying yet. It makes a crossword puzzle seem boring. We are only 2/3 way through the consonants, so we aren’t reading much yet, but I did manage to write my first word today. Car, or gaaDii, when Romanized.

Did you notice that capital letter in the Romanized version? That’s because there are two ways to pronounce a d, depending on whether your tongue is touching your palate or your teeth. The capital D is the palate version.

In Nepali, it looks like this: गाडी

Grammar? That’s something else, beginning with word order. We do subject, verb, object, and Nepalis do subject, object, verb. I’m not quite sure if the adjective goes before or after the noun. I’m pretty sure the rule is not consistent. And they have all kinds of prefixes and suffixes for both nouns and verbs that alter the sense and meaning. Beyond that, they don’t always say things the way we would say them, or even think about them in the same way, so often a literal translation doesn’t make sense to them, since they process the idea differently. This is true in any cultural context, including regional variations of English or whatever you speak.

Being alert to such things keeps you young. I expect to be about 36 by the time I get home in a few months. Or 33, depending on whom you ask. But I don’t really expect any advanced level of Nepali fluency. Shopping and catching a taxi will be nice. After dinner conversation even better.

This is a lifelong process. But I’m still young.

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