Portrait: The saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, … has been proven wrong.”

Hans Semmelmeyer shares with Babbel his story of using traveling and language learning to overcome grief.
Author's Avatar
Portrait: The saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, … has been proven wrong.”

New from our series of Babbel Portraits: here, our users introduce themselves and their experiences learning a language. If you would like to share your experiences with us, then please leave a comment below.


“My wife died in 2009 after 35 years of marriage. She spoke fluent French and Italian, and I always felt stupid and speechless standing next to her when she was chatting away. On my many trips abroad, I had always been able to communicate very well in English. As I never managed to learn other languages in the time I shared with my wife, I thought that I could best confront feelings of sadness and injured vanity by beginning to learn French and Italian intensively with Babbel. Perhaps it is a little too late to start learning at the age of 67, but the old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has been proven wrong.”

The Austrian, Hans Semmelmeyer, has created something positive out of the grief of losing his wife to accomplish something that he had been putting off for years. We all know that feeling: We want to try out new things, set ourselves specific goals, but often something holds us back from doing it, and we try to find excuses and circumstances which have stopped us from doing it until now. No time for that trip to the Amazon? Fear of bungee jumping? Feeling ashamed in a dancing group — no sense of rhythm? Not enough self-confidence to speak a new language? That’s a real shame! Why not try out everything in small steps?

It is never too late to change

Everyone puts something off for whatever reason. In Hans Semmelmeyer’s case, it was learning languages. Although he has been to Paris about 70 to 80 times, he never found the time and had no pressure to learn the language. After the death of his wife, who fluently mastered French and Italian, he finally got down to it and wanted to learn. At first he tried a French course at an adult community center. “That was not systematic and fast enough and was too much like a casual chit-chat for me,” he says. Hans Semmelmeyer then searched the Internet to find a way of learning both languages tailored to his individual requirements. And that is how he stumbled upon Babbel.

Since then, he has developed his own ritual when learning: “Early in the morning I first always read the news and look at the weather before learning one of the languages with Babbel for 15 to 20 minutes. At the beginning, I had to get used to incorporating learning into my morning ritual for the first few times, but now something is missing if I don’t learn,” he says. “It does not take a lot of effort for me learning languages and, in fact, I miss it when I don’t learn.”

Seeing the light on the horizon

When Hans Semmelmeyer finally managed to learn French and Italian intensively, he got a lot more out of it than he initially thought he would. Before his first trip to France, he spent three months learning French.

The languages have opened up other worlds for him. Using Babbel, he was able to immerse himself in both languages and use them in practice shortly thereafter.

Hans had his first sense of achievement in France after learning the language. He was hiking there, when a group of ladies approached him: “It was a great feeling to be able to communicate with them in their language; we simply spoke with one another in French.” Hans Semmelmeyer’s favorite word in French is chef-d’œuvre (masterpiece”) and in Italian ventiquattrore (“briefcase”), which literally translates as “24 hours.” At the moment he is learning French every day to refresh his knowledge for his next trip to France. Next year he will learn Italian again because he will be going to Rome. Learning vocabulary is a high priority for him.

“Now at 73, I like travelling frequently to France and Italy and am able to converse quite well in the national languages. And, I admit, I am quite proud of it! Well, when you are happy, you like to share this happiness, and when you are sad, you want to deal with it on your own,” says Hans Semmelmeyer.

Pick a language to speak