In aging migrant communities, language barriers can create limitations on seniors’ way of life. In research conducted by linguists at The University of Groningen, it was found that limited second language (L2) proficiency can detrimentally affect seniors’ aging processes. In practice, this is not hard to imagine. For instance, an aging Indian immigrant in the United States who does not have strong English proficiency could have anxiety in social situations requiring communication in English. This anxiety results in migrant seniors turning inwards and communicating only with others who speak their native language, usually their family. Such isolation is detrimental as seniors then lose community and the ability to communicate with their peers.
Currently, the primary language-based aid given to migrant seniors is translation assistance. For example, bilingual volunteers who help seniors through healthcare appointments. While these translation services are useful, they don’t help seniors gain agency over their own lives. If senior centers were to offer L2 language classes, migrant seniors would learn how to communicate on their own. This would build more confidence and could help them create a community in their new country.
The importance of L2 language acquisition for migrants may seem evident. However, I will add that classes in any language can greatly ameliorate a senior’s life. While it may be easier to learn a new language as a child, research has shown that learning a new language over the age of 50 is not only achievable but can help with the retention of vital mental processes.
The social aspect of aging can also be helped through learning someone else’s language. In many migrant communities people have arrived from different countries, and members at one senior center may not all speak the same language. Segregated groups can arise in senior centers with residents of multiple nationalities, as people gravitate towards whomever they can communicate with.
Classes teaching the various languages present in a migrant community could help seniors connect with one another, and can also help seniors feel a sense of pride in their home nation and language. Oftentimes, when migrant communities assimilate to their new country, the language and culture of their home country get devalued. This is why many migrants with accents may feel embarrassed while speaking, even if they have strong L2 proficiency. However, if, for example, an Indian migrant was asked to aid in a class at their senior center in Hindi, they may begin to feel proud of their home language. Others taking an interest in their language could create a strong confidence boost for many migrants. This newfound confidence can greatly help migrant seniors overcome some anxieties about living in a new country.
One of the most powerful tools a senior center can provide for its members is agency over their own lives, this is why they have classes for physical fitness and technology. Classes teaching languages would further create that agency and be especially useful to members of migrants communities.