Speaking in Tongues

blog post photo

A recent Washington Post article details the bizarre medical case of a Fairfax, VA woman named Robin Jenks Vanderlip, who, after suffering a head injury in a fall in 2007, lost her mid-Atlantic American accent and began speaking English with what sounds like a thick Russian accent. As the article explains:

Since the fall, her clipped way with consonants — dropping the final “s” from some plural words, saying “dis” and “dat” for “this” and “that,” or “wiz” instead of “with” — and her formation of vowels — “home” sounds more like “herm,” “well” sounds like “wuhl” — identify her more like a transplant from Moscow. The more fatigued she becomes, the thicker her accent grows.

Allen R. Braun, a neurologist at the National Institutes of Health who is studying Vanderlip’s case, told the Post that she is afflicted with Foreign Accent Syndrome, a rare, mysterious condition. According to a 1996 article in Brain and Language, the first documented case was identified in a Czech patient in 1919, but the condition gained wider attention during World War II, when a Norwegian woman struck by a piece of shrapnel began to speak in what sounded like a German accent. In 2005, BBC News reported that a British man named George Reynolds, after suffering a stroke, began speaking with what sounded like an Italian accent. In April, according to a Times (UK) article, a British woman named Sarah Colwill, after a severe migraine attack, began suddenly speaking with a high-pitched intonation that resembles Chinese.

According to the Times article, only about 20 people around the world are believed to suffer from FAS.

Many of the reported cases of FAS occurred after head trauma or illness, and for years, scientists have believed that FAS is caused by an injury to the left hemisphere of the brain. According to a 2009 New Scientist article, however, Belgian neurolinguist Peter Mariën and colleagues have found two cases of people who developed FAS in childhood, even though MRI scans of their brains show no trace of brain damage. His work raises the question of whether some FAS cases might be caused by some other factor, such as a genetic predisposition.

Some experts say that the impression that FAS sufferers’ distorted enunciation is a foreign accent is largely in the ears of the beholder. Indeed, Mariën’s team found that a panel of listeners variously interpreted one Dutch FAS sufferer’s accent as French, German, Scandinavian or even Moroccan.

But FAS may not be the strangest speech disorder around. There also have been a number of even more puzzling cases reported in the media, in which people inexplicably have begun speaking in an entirely different language unfamiliar to them. In 2007, for example, The Daily Mail, a UK newspaper, reported that a Czech race driver who was knocked unconscious in a crash awoke and spoke fluently to paramedics in English — a language in which he had only beginning, rudimentary knowledge — and used what witnesses described as a British accent. The driver’s sudden English fluency reportedly vanished after a few days, just as mysteriously as it came.
In April, the Telegraph, another UK newspaper, reported on the case of a 13-year-old Croatian girl who awoke from a coma no longer able to speak her native language, but suddenly fluent in German. The paper quoted a Croatian psychiatrist, Mijo Milas, who is part of a team studying the patient.

“In earlier times this would have been referred to as a miracle, we prefer to think that there must be a logical explanation — its just that we haven’t found it yet. There are references to cases where people who have been seriously ill and perhaps in a coma have woken up being able to speak other languages — sometimes even the Biblical languages such as that spoken in old Babylon or Egypt — at the moment though any speculation would remain just that — speculation — so it’s better to continue tests until we actually know something.”

Dr. Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, published a fascinating analysis of the Croatian girl’s case in his Neurologica Blog. Novella, who says there are no verified cases of spontaneous foreign language acquisition, concludes that the girl’s story was sensationally distorted by the media. There are common sounds in German and Croatian, and the patient actually had learned some German in school — though her fluency reportedly improved after her coma, which to Novella and his colleague Ivan Osman, was a more intriguing mystery.

Novella explains that when bilingual speakers suffer brain injuries and suffer what is called bilingual or polyglot aphasia, they do not always recover their ability to speak the different languages that they know at the same rate. Generally, however, it is the secondary language learned at a later age that the patient recovers more slowly, not the primary language.

The story was distorted in the English press so that the interesting point seemed to be that she was speaking German, which is not interesting because she already could speak German. They missed the really interesting point — not that she could speak German, but that she could not speak Croatian. Ivan brings up an interesting question — can you neurologically lose your primary language, and retain (and even improve) a secondary language?

Novella hypothesizes that the girl might have an unusual form of aphasia that reverses the pattern.

The question is — could she have an unusual form of aphasia that is impairing her ability to disinhibit her Croatian language, leaving her only able to speak German? This could theoretically have the effect of making her German seem more fluent, because she does not have to expend mental energy inhibiting her Croatian — that has become automatic. This would be doubly rare (perhaps unique) because Croatian is her primary language, and German her secondary language.

Novella also raises the possibility that the girl’s language shift might be psychological, rather than neurological, in origin. In any case, he says, more study of her is needed.