The Brain's Best Kept Secret

Do you work the New York Times crossword puzzle every day?

Have you tapped into an online program for mental gymnastics? Brushed your teeth with your left hand if you're right-handed? Taken a calligraphy class?

There's nothing wrong with those. Not a thing. But do you know what the brain loves? Do you know what staves off Alzheimer's and dementia better than anything else?

That's right. But not just any words. The brain craves foreign words.

I didn't know that when I started. I'd retired in Bali, Indonesia, and at sixty-two I wasn't sure I had the capacity to memorize a poem let alone a language. I scanned websites and found The 1000 Most Common Indonesian Words. That was a few hundred more than I'd expected. But I didn't want to stare at the computer screen. Learning should be creative

I bought an Indonesian dictionary. "It's an easy language," the clerk said and I wanted to believe her. But I knew I'd need study aids, flash cards, something I could use to drill new sounds and meanings into my resistant skull.

I was on a mission.

Please note that four years ago Ubud, Bali, wasn't like a town in America. I couldn't hop over to the local big box store, grab what I needed and go home. No. The two options that comprised the local shopping experience, one on the east end of town and one on the west, were identical. There was a section for electrical sockets, switches, and wire. An aisle with bundles of incense. Mops, bamboo brooms, and hand-made rag rugs skulked in a far back corner. A fishy odor lingered around the cellophane wrapped foodstuffs piled in the center with mounds of alien fruits to one side and mysterious meat carcasses on bloody display at the other.

The area that fascinated me, however, changed depending upon what vendor was in town. Once I found pierced aluminum boxes in every conceivable size. Another time there were colorful plastic folders and tablets printed with Hello Kitty and SpongeBob SquarePants complete with matching socks. You just never knew.

What I discovered that day was perfect: flat, wooden ice cream spoons, packets of 25 of them for 2000 rph, about 19 cents. I bought 2 packs, hurried home and penned an Indonesian word on one side and the English translation on the back. About the time I finished the first 25 panic struck. What if the sticks were never to be found again? I grabbed my purse, shot back to the store and wiped out the entire stock.


Since then I've accumulated an impressive collection of wooden spoons. The newest ones stay within easy reach in a red dish on the table.

The sticks worked for words. But sentences? They belonged in a different world.

I was on the back of the motorbike rattling on in Indonesian to my friend as we tooled along. I asked a question, or at least I thought I had, and he didn't answer. "You understand?" I said. After another few minutes of silence his laugh came floating back on the breeze. "Ya, but nobody else will!"

That's when I enrolled in formal classes.

My teacher is a task-master of the highest caliber. Under her prodding my lackadaisical approach of the past four years has kicked up several notches. She doesn't tolerate a conversational hack job like my friend does. But the fact that my gray matter has gotten used to strange sounds and has already committed to memory more than I believed possible, makes learning the challenging concepts she introduces do-able.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely. Besides outwitting dementia, when I speak Indonesian in the shops I get 'local price' which is far better than 'tourist price'.

I'm a trusted friend and as such I hear the most shocking gossip.

I'm privy to conversations about me by people that assume I don't understand what they're saying. (Not always a positive thing!)

And finally, it's my way of showing respect in this country that I now consider home.

You don't have to move to do what I've done. What if you planned to vacation next year in...let's not say China. Trying to learn that language would be mental suicide. Maybe Italy?

You have 12 months to study words and energize your brain. When you take the trip you can converse, read menus, and practice speaking with people who will love you for it. Knowing the language of a place opens doors to opportunities that would never happen for the casual traveler.

Are you inspired? I hope so!

Why don't you give your brain what it loves! Start planning now. What's on your bucket list? Where have you always wanted to go?

Sherry Bronson