qmunicate Interviews: Lingo Flamingo

Lingo Flamingo is a social enterprise that teaches modern languages in care homes throughout Glasgow, something which has been scientifically proven to be particularly beneficial to those suffering from dementia. qmunicate caught up with Tommy McGlynn, who works for them. A politics graduate from the University of Glasgow, he studied for a Masters in Social Business at Glasgow Caledonian University, which was how he met the founder of Lingo Flamingo. His work was particularly close to his heart, as his own grandmother had dementia. Our discussion centred on the work of Lingo Flamingo, particularly regarding the research done into the benefits of learning another language for our memory, and how University of Glasgow students can get involved in the rewarding work that they do.

qmunicate: Where did the inspiration for Lingo Flamingo come from?

Tommy: Robbie Norval, the founder of LINGO FLAMINGO, speaks two languages: Swedish and German. He taught English in Sweden and Germany and, as he was teaching people with learning disabilities, he liked the idea of making learning accessible, as his gran was also diagnosed with dementia. He found out this really interesting research by the University of Edinburgh that indicated that learning a language is really good for the mind and could actually reduce the chance of getting dementia. So, he melded all his interests together to create a language school specifically for older adults living with dementia.

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qmunicate: In what ways is learning another language beneficial to older people?

Tommy: The research from the University of Edinburgh was conducted in Canada and compared monolinguists with trilinguists and essentially found that those who can speak two or more languages tended to develop dementia five years later than those who can only speak one language. It was an interesting one-off piece. This was replicated in Scotland, India and Indonesia, and essentially they found the same results over and over again – that learning other languages delays your chances of dementia and aids those recovering from strokes. So, Lingo Flamingo took this idea onboard and tries to prove the benefits for those who already have dementia and other cognitive impairments. One side of our classes are targeted at people who have dementia already and we work with Glasgow Caledonian University and Edinburgh University to quantify those results. We also work on younger older adults – those aged between 65 and 75 – to get them into language learning.

When you learn another language, in order to get the right word you have to suppress, albeit subconsciously, the English word for it and it is that, along with the unfamiliar grammar, new sounds and those kind of things, which builds up what is known as cognitive reserve, which is what prevents dementia and aids in stroke recovery. We teach classes in French, German, Spanish and Italian, the last two being the most popular, probably because they have romantic notions linked to them. The classes are immersive so we always try to take account of their mental, physical and medical needs. It is not like language learning from a textbook, but rather sensory – touch, taste, sound. For instance, with Italian, we would have a cooking class, with Spanish we do Flamenco Class – things which make it a bit different so that it does not necessarily feel like language learning.


qmunicate: What does a normal class consist of?

Tommy: We have volunteers through our link to University of Glasgow. A lot of volunteers from University of Glasgow, particularly language students, through the university. In the classroom, we assess the needs, particularly for those who cannot see or hear, and the class content would be judged based on that. Music tends to work very well. Maybe in a French class we would have them sculpting landmarks of France. We also have cooking sessions, opera sessions, flamenco sessions, graduation ceremonies. The idea is to take away the stigma of language learning, especially in the UK, to show that it can be fun and that it is good for the mind as well. Normally in care homes, lots of the activities tend to be passive ones like bingo, but language learning is more engaging by as it stimulates memories and lets them try something new.

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qmunicate: What is the most rewarding aspect of working for Lingo Flamingo?

Tommy: For me, it has been changing my own perceptions of older adults. Older people are so full of life no matter what stage of dementia they are at. They have stories to tell, things to share, and their own perspectives to offer. It does a lot for senior positivity. An ninety-six-year-old who has lost her sight and whose friends have passed away still has energy that we don’t necessarily encounter in other places. Although I am not necessarily a linguist, I believe strongly in lifelong learning and this is an important part of our message too. Many people think that once you leave university, that is your education over, but lifelong learning should mean that right up to the end we should be learning something new, because of the inherent value in doing so.


qmunicate: Are there any anecdotes you want to share?

Tommy: Just the stuff that people come out with. For instance, a woman in a care home in Govanhill has a joke for everything and she has what she calls the world’s smallest joke book. We sometimes cannot get the classes going because she has a joke for everything you say! One of her daft jokes included: ‘what do you give a deaf fish’.

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qmunicate: I don’t know, what do you give a deaf fish?

Tommy: Herring Aids. Why was the tomato blushing?


qmunicate: Why?

Tommy: It saw the salad dressing. She had a million jokes like that.


qmunicate: How can students get involved?

Tommy: We are not-for-profit, so we try and train volunteers to deliver all our classes. We look for language students of any level and we will provide training for which you can get an online qualification from the Open University. You go to a care home or day centre where you deliver your own classes and we give you guidance. Then you are free to do the activities, games, lesson plans. It is useful for language students as well as anyone interested in teaching.

[Liam Caldwell] 

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