Travel 2023: Becoming Bilingual in Bogota (and Boosting Brain Health at the Same Time)

Brain Health

A view in Bogotá, Columbia. Photo: Efrain Subero/EyeEm/Getty Images

Escape and find a purpose! In our February/March 2023 issue of Zoomer magazine, we featured “23 Reasons to Travel in 2023”. In this edition, we focus on how immersing yourself in another culture and becoming bilingual may improve brain health and help to stave off dementia. Click on the link at the bottom of the story for more ideas and inspiration for your next trip.


Eating breakfast in my Bogotá Airbnb, I’m as nervous as a kid starting high school. Have I studied enough? Will my fellow students be decades younger?

Swallowing my worries, I grab my backpack and walk 10 minutes to a language-immersion school called Nueva Lengua. I arrived in the Colombian capital a week before a work conference so I could improve my Spanish with intensive classes from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. over five days.

I’ve been studying Spanish sporadically for years, spurred by my fascination with Latin American cultures. But now that I’m facing 20 hours of immersion, I’m wondering, “Is this crazy?”

At Nueva Lengua, the first classmate I meet is Nic, a grandmother from Belgium. That allays my fears of being the only student over 50, but I still feel slightly lost. Our instructor, Milena, speaks more quickly than my teacher in Ottawa, and the grammar’s a bit advanced.

Then I meet Annie, a fellow student from Quebec. The bubbly millennial explains that learning English in elementary school opened up a new world of ideas. She’s studying Spanish to expand her horizons even further. Instantly, my confidence rebounds. Who cares that I’m old enough to be Annie’s mom? We’re here for the same reasons.

In the mornings, my class of six studies grammar, watches videos and reads stories. One day, Milena teaches us to make obleas: the snacks have dulce de leche, condensed milk, cheese and jam slathered between two crunchy wafers.

In the afternoons, Nueva Lengua offers optional activities so we can practise our Spanish. In a nearby restaurant, I try an addictive chicken-corn-and-potato soup called ajiaco, which can be topped with avocado, cilantro, lime and – weirdly – bananas. One afternoon in the school’s kitchen, Milena teaches us how to make a rice pudding called arroz con leche. We learn salsa dancing, ride a cable car up Monserrate, Bogotá’s landmark mountain, and take a field trip to an underground church called the Salt Cathedral.


Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira in Colombia, South America. Photo: Pierrick Lemaret/Getty Images


I spend my most memorable afternoon playing Colombia’s national sport, tejo, which is a bit like bowling – but with explosives. We fling heavy metal discs down 18-metre-long lanes at gunpowder-filled targets, which explode on impact. Oh, and the club owner keeps bringing us beer. “What could possibly go wrong?” I think. Miraculously, we escape unmaimed.

After my week of immersion, I head to my conference. There, I learn that one of my Canadian colleagues has forgotten to pack her medication. At a pharmacy, I request replacement pills and confirm the price in Spanish. This ordinary task is immensely satisfying.

Some studies, including a 2021 paper by York University researcher Ellen Bialystok, suggest that becoming bilingual may improve brain health, helping stave off dementia. That’s part of my motivation for studying Spanish but feeling comfortable in other cultures inspires me even more.  

A version this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 2023 issue with the headline ‘Promote Brain Health’, p. 82.

For more ideas and inspiration for your next trip, go here