Every Tuesday, 79-year-old Nguyen Thi Loc joins a group of gray-haired students to study English in a house in Hanoi, with the aim of socializing and keeping her brain sharp.
The informal classes are free and taught by Phung Thi Yen, who is trained as an English teacher but currently works as an office worker.
It’s because a growing number of scientific studies show the benefits of learning a language to maintain and improve cognitive skills, including for seniors.
Loc has never learned a foreign language, but with her newly acquired skills she sings in unison with her classmates: “Never too old to learn English”.
They read aloud, imitate the teacher and sing songs to perfect their pronunciation – one of the most difficult parts of their job.
“The tongue twisters, words with muted letters, words where we have to curl our lips to pronounce them: those things are very difficult for us,” says Loc.
Yen, 30, set up the classes four years ago with the aim of giving the elderly a place where they can meet, socialize and learn something new. Older people in Vietnam usually live alone or with their children rather than in retirement homes.
With the support of her employer, Yen takes time off from her day job to teach Loc’s class and several others. She and her group of volunteers currently teach 200 senior students.
Yen says her students work hard to learn the language. English is the most widely taught foreign language in Vietnam after becoming a compulsory school subject in the 1990s.
“These grannies have worked hard and put in a lot of effort to get to where they are today. In any case, they have built up an extensive vocabulary for themselves that they can use in their daily lives,” says Yen.
Loc says there have been moments of discouragement in her four years of taking the class, but it makes her happy to be able to understand her grandchildren as they practice speaking English while doing their homework.
“Even though we are old, we should still try to study, because studying helps the brain,” she said.
Reporting by Minh Nguyen and Thinh Tien Nguyen; Written by Francesco Guarascio; Edited by Kanupriya Kapoor and Ana Nicolaci da Costa @ Reuters