The Central DeKalb Senior Center offers a French culture and language course, where Kris Kane takes instruction from Elizabeth Wilson. (Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography)

Parlez-vous français? Second-language classes keep minds sharp

Story by H.M. Cauley. Photos by Jenni Girtman

Research on aging has long touted the benefits of word games and puzzles to keep memory muscles in shape. While writing things down, developing mnemonic codes and repetition are also helpful, the experts at the Harvard Medical School recently wrote on the site, they added that the No. 1 way to hone mental acuity is to keep learning.

Challenging the brain with mental exercise, they write, can jump-start the systems that help brain cells thrive. Among their suggestions, along with playing games, are taking on new challenges and learning a new skill.

Members of Elizabeth’s Wilson’s French class at the Central DeKalb Senior Center are giving those brain cells a weekly workout as they learn new vocabulary, phrases and verb tenses en français.

Wilson, a veteran public relations executive, began teaching “French for Beginners” more than two years ago, and the course proved so popular that last spring she created a follow-up course, “Conversational French.”

“Like me, most people here studied French in elementary and/or high school and college. And, like me, they’re Francophiles,” Wilson says. “I’ve been to France four times so far, and I adore it.”

Center director Victoria Kingsland knew of Wilson’s French obsession and asked her to consider leading a class that would combine basic language elements with a good deal of cultural conversation.

“She called me knowing I loved all things French and do speak French un peu,” Wilson says. “I reiterated that I wasn’t certified in any way, but what she had in mind was ‘the French experience.’ Half the class is spent on basic conversational French. The second half is a lecture about some aspect of French history, culture, people, art or music.”

On a typical Friday morning, about a dozen adults settle into one of the center’s classrooms, lined with tables and comfortable chairs. They set out dictionaries, pens, notebooks and the occasional three-ring binder, and pay close attention as Wilson leads them through the day’s lesson. Topics often run the gamut from frequently used travel phrases and how to describe the weather to more daunting issues such as conjunctions, pronouns and diphthongs. In between lively participation, students grab cellphones or iPads to google translations, pronunciations and the finer grammar points.

The same activities continue with more students in Wilson’s second class, and both sessions end with her giving a brief presentation on an aspect of French history or culture, such as Corsica or “The Little Prince” author, Antoine Saint-Exupéry. Occasionally, members of the class will relate their French travel experiences.

Decatur resident Salley Evans has been in the class for two years and began as one of the few participants who had no prior knowledge of French. “But I’d been looking for a course to take for years, and a friend told me about this one,” she says. “I especially adore learning about the culture. I’ve also learned not to be afraid to speak. That was my biggest inhibition, but I’ve lost my fear. And I think there’s a value for memory with this kind of learning.”

Seniors in Cobb County interested in learning a second language will find similar courses in Spanish. Beginner and intermediate courses are offered at the East Cobb Senior Services complex on Sandy Plains Road and at the Senior Wellness center on Powder Springs Road, both in Marietta.

In addition, anyone 62 or older can enroll in free language courses at any of the University of Georgia system campuses ( This includes Kennesaw State and Georgia Perimeter College at Georgia State University, with campuses in Alpharetta, Dunwoody and Decatur.

For 67-year-old Chip Harrell, taking Wilson’s class taps into his appreciation for all things French, but it serves another key purpose as well.

“I retired from the National Labor Relations Board a year ago, and for me, a big part of coming here is the social aspect,” he says. “I started studying online, but since coming here, I’ve found friendly people with the same interests.”

The social aspect often continues outside the classroom. The group has taken excursions to lunch at Cafe Alsace in downtown Decatur, and they’ve also organized a covered-dish lunch of French-inspired foods at the center. Wilson says, “We had a lot of baguettes.”

Central DeKalb Senior Center, 1346 McConnell Drive. 770-492-5461.

Cobb Senior Services. 770-528-5355.

Insider tip

Senior services in some metro counties offer language classes. For details, google senior services in your area.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.