Being Bilingual: What Is Multilingual Aphasia?

September 9th, 2012
Being Bilingual What Is Multilingual Aphasia

Whether you have one language or many, whether you love words and speak poetically or find communication difficult and make your way monosyllabically, language has deep roots in our souls.

The Horror of Aphasia

Added to these mysteries is the physical aspect – how is language stored and utilized in the brain? Aphasia is a condition wherein language skills are negatively affected due to physical injury to the brain, commonly from trauma or stroke.

Consider the case of a middle-aged man living in Zurich. He grew up speaking Standard and Swiss German (not the same language!) and learned some French when he was a youth in France. When he was nineteen, he moved to France and came to speak French very well – this was one of the happiest periods of his life.

When he was twenty-five, he moved back to Switzerland and married, and for the next two decades primarily spoke Swiss German, and rarely, if ever, French, although his love for France and its language remained.

Then at age forty-four, he suffered a stroke, and was afflicted with aphasia. His comprehension of his three languages returned rapidly. When he started to speak, however, things got interesting: His first words were in fluent French, a language he had not spoken regularly for twenty years. For some time his French got better and better. Then, more slowly, he regained his second language, Standard German. Swiss German, the language he’d been primarily speaking for two decades, came months later: and slowly at that.

Language Fight Club

As his Swiss German began improving, his French then began a rapid decline. This is what experts call ‘antagonistic’ recovery, where language skills return at the expense of each other. As he spoke better and better Swiss German, his French slowly returned to the half-forgotten state it had been in.

Theories abound about this phenomenon. My personal theory is that the man’s affection for his youth spent in France explains why that language came back so strongly – the moment he had the opportunity to relive his French, his mind took it.

An emotional response, in other words. As his family struggled to communicate with him, (his wife spoke no French) emotions played a role again, forcing him to regain the language balance he’d previously enjoyed.

Naturally, I don’t expect scientists to agree with me. But I know the powerful link between emotions and language – words are, after all, how we express those emotions.