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At age 87, Thea, a student at Capital Region Language Center (CRLC), is proof you’re never too old to go back to school. She started last winter when her independent senior living center partnered with CRLC to offer a weekly, on-site French class as part of the senior language learning programs it offers, both online and in-person.

Thea, who chose not to share her last name or where she lives because of the scams she says often target seniors, says the language came back to her quickly.

“My father often spoke French to me as a child, and I also studied it in high school,” she explains. She joined about a dozen fellow residents at the in-person class and fell back in love with the language. When the program was over, she asked about one-on-one instruction.

Her teacher, Sabra Sanwal, wasn’t surprised. After 33 years teaching at a private high school and at the college level, Thea’s class was Sanwal’s first at a senior living center.  And she said Thea was a star student.

“She would come up to me before and after class and want to keep speaking French,” Sanwal explains. “At our last group session, Thea said, ‘This has been amazing. I never imagined my French would come back to me. I’ve always loved it, and I want to keep taking individual lessons with you.’”

Sanwal agreed. The next day, she learned Thea had already contacted CRLC to sign up.

Thea, an 87 year old French student, with her Capital Region Language Center teacher, Sabra Sanwal on a Facetime call. After Thea participated in a Senior Language Learning Program at her senior living center, she now takes one-on-one lessons on her phone.

Thea on a Facetime French class with her teacher, Sabra Sanwal.


Weekly Facetime Classes 

“I love French, and I wanted to speak it correctly,” Thea explains. “Learning the words is easy for me; it’s the grammar, and I don’t know the endings and conjugation as well.”

Now, she says, “I think in French.” She has also begun to read the language.

For that, she credits her teacher.

“Sabra is magnificent. She is kind and has the patience of a saint.”

The pair started classes via video on their computers, but there were technical challenges for Thea. So Sanwal suggested they try Facetime on their iPhones. It works so well the pair now schedule two, one-hour French sessions each week. The day before class, Sanwal will email study sheets for Thea to review. They work through them during their time together.


Benefits of Seniors Language Learning Programs 

“This is good for my brain,” says Thea, who often practices her French with a fellow resident, who also took the group class with Sanwal.

While Sanwal says there is research about the benefits of senior language learning programs, she says she teaches individual students of all ages. She currently works with four other students, one-on-one, as well as teaching small group classes in French at CRLC, located off Wolf Road, in Colonie.

“Some students meet in person, some on-line and in some cases, it is hybrid,” she explains. “A group class might be more fun or helpful to one student, while another wants to build confidence working directly with a teacher. With each of my students, I am 100% customizing every lesson to align with their personal language goals.”

She says two of her students are engineers, one is a retired teacher while another is a college student. Each one is working at a different level of proficiency and they each have their own professional, academic, or personal reasons for studying the language.

Sanwal loves the variety of teaching she does each week.


Customized Language Instruction 

“As an experienced teacher, I know how to structure lessons for each of them,” Sanwal explains. “Everyone does a reading assignment, but I also make sure there is repetition, so things come back up for reinforcement. But there is also flexibility. If a question comes up in one session, we can use it as the driver of the next discussion.”

She says the video and Facetime options are especially helpful for seniors like Thea, as well as busy working professionals.

“Bad weather, travel or illness are no longer an obstacle in scheduling a session,” she explains.

Thea worked for many years as a medical receptionist, raising her family on Long Island. After losing her husband, she relocated to the Capital Region to be closer to her children and grandchildren. They fully support her dive back into French classes.

“My son said, ‘If you enjoy it, Mom, go ahead and do it,’” she says. “I’m so much happier now.”


Learning from Each Other 

Sanwal says the learning has gone both ways.

“This has been a life altering experience for Thea,” she explains. “You can see that it gives her energy. She is opening herself to something she enjoys. I am going to take this experience with me as I age. It’s just been so fabulous. I look forward to every session.”

So does her student.

“I thank God I have my mind,” Thea says. “This is something I have an interest in, and I just love it.”

To learn more about the Capital Region Language Center, including our on-site and virtual Senior Language Learning Programs, contact us at: 518-729-5407 or info@crlcalbany.org.