When we learn a new language, we also crucially strengthen neuronal networks that span different regions in our brain. These changes can have a positive effect on our cognitive skills. As we grow older, however, the opposite happens, and our language and communication skills tend to decline, changing the way we communicate. This, of course, is unfortunate, as communication fulfills a number of important functions for older people, including strengthening their social ties, securing their independence and increasing their wellbeing. It is thus all the more important that we investigate people’s ability to communicate and deal with communication issues as they approach retirement.
There are numerous studies in social studies and behavioral sciences that examine the effects of retirement on people’s physical and mental health and how working affects our cognition. However, there has been little research on how retirement may impact individuals’ language development and language use. In the VARIAGE (Variation in second language use and development across retirement) research project, the team of Simone Pfenninger, professor of English linguistics at the University of Zurich (UZH), is now researching whether and how retirement, as a socially constructed concept, affects the language use and language learning ability of people over the age of 60.
To achieve this, a group of German native speakers approaching retirement age will spend two years learning English or French. During this time, researchers will regularly examine their communicative and cognitive skills. The aim is to determine how the target language affects the learning process. When it comes to data evaluation, in turn, the goal is to develop tools that can help people maintain their language and cognitive skills after they retire.
The VARIAGE project is the first to produce insights on how retirement affects our ability to communicate in our first and second languages. As such, it plays a crucial part in improving and expanding current research on cognition and language acquisition. But not only researchers stand to benefit from the project. By identifying risk factors that precipitate cognitive decline or communication problems, it will be possible to develop strategies that help maintain people’s cognitive skills and promote healthy aging in the general population. Last but not least, the project will also lead to new open-access tools and teaching materials that can be used by individuals, health authorities, universities and language schools working with older people.
«The VARIAGE project is the first to investigate the immediate effects of retirement on people’s communications skills in their first as well as a second language such as English or French.»
Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Stark, Professor of Romance language and literature and Vice President Research at the University of Zurich