To Have Another Language Is To Have A Second Soul



It is a truth universally acknowledged that we Brits are crap at speaking foreign languages. In some ways it is understandable because when you have been lucky enough to be born speaking the language of Shakespeare and the one in which God chose to write the King James’ Bible, why bother with anything else?

Some of us persevere, of course, and immerse ourselves in syntax and parsing, trying to make sense of the differences between the imperfect, perfect and pluperfect tenses, the differences between the conditional and subjunctive and the gerund and gerundive. Preening ourselves with our new found knowledge, we go on holiday determined to try out our new language skills. And what a let down this turns out to be.

Invariably, the first waiter we encounter turns out to be a wage slave from some third world country or is someone who is more anxious to practise their English than you are to practise your newly acquired skills and so the conversation reverts to your native language. If you continue doggedly on, you will find that the other person speaks in a thick, impenetrable accent or at 500 miles an hour so that you are completely flummoxed. Even if you can understand what they say, they generally use phrases which are not contained in your text book. Best to abandon all hope and revert to the mono-lingual British stereotype.

But, it seems, help may be at hand. 81 year old Alun Morgan from Bathwick in Somerset suffered a massive stroke. When he regained consciousness three weeks later he astonished his medical staff by speaking fluent Welsh. He had been evacuated to Wales as a small boy during the Second World War but had not spoken Welsh, even though he was surrounded by Welsh speakers. Doctors diagnosed Alun as suffering from aphasia, a form of brain damage which causes a shift in the brain’s language centre.

There have been other examples of this phenomenon. Kay Russell, a 49 year old grandmother from Bishop Cleeve, suffered a migraine and began speaking in a French accent. Devonian, Sarah Colwill, suffered a migraine too and began speaking with a Chinese accent.

This particular variant of aphasia – up to a third of stroke sufferers have some form of aphasia – is known as Foreign Accent Syndrome, which causes a sudden change to speech patterns such that the speaker talks with a foreign accent. Researchers believe that a small part of the brain affecting speech is damaged causing a drawing out or clipping of the vowels that mimic the accent of a certain country, even if that person has limited exposure to the language of that country. The first recorded example was during the Second World War when a Norwegian woman who had shrapnel lodged in her brain started speaking with a strong German accent.

This has set me thinking. Perhaps the area of the brain which controls language is a bit like a radio dial and depending upon where you are born, your dial is calibrated to a certain setting. If this is the case, then it cannot be beyond human ingenuity to develop a device which enables you to recalibrate the dial at will. As well as causing some amusement at even the dullest party, it would at once enable nation to speak unto nation, eliminating the need to spend months poring over dusty grammar books and vocabularies.

I think this is an idea which should be pursued with vigour.