Can we speak in SSB's mother tongue?

Stroke: When you lose your mother tongue

The Chinese Liu Jiayu suddenly speaks only English after a stroke. The woman from the Chinese Hunan Province replied to the Chinese question about her age: "Ninety-four" [94] She had taught English for a long time.

An Englishman suddenly only speaks Welsh after a stroke, even though he has not been in Wales for 70 years. And a German from Thuringia suddenly speaks Swiss German after her stroke, without ever having been to Switzerland. There are even more cases where people suddenly started speaking with a foreign accent or even only in a foreign language after a stroke.

More about stroke: When the blow hits you

This is how our language can change after a stroke

These cases are rare, but there is an explanation, says Anja Lowit, who emigrated from Germany to Great Britain thirty years ago to do research on linguistics and speech therapy. She also deals with changes in language after a stroke.

The cases described above can be divided into two categories. If people only speak one foreign language after a stroke, it is a form of bilingual aphasia. When they speak with what appears to be a foreign accent, it is called the "Foreign Accent Syndrome".

A stroke occurs when a certain part of the brain is no longer supplied with blood. Language changes do not necessarily have to occur only after a stroke. For example, an American student initially only spoke Spanish after a head injury at a football game and a brief coma.

Lowit tells of the case of a British woman who spoke with a seemingly French accent after a severe migraine, or of another patient who spoke with a foreign accent after a vaccination and a week-long illness.

Suddenly a foreign accent

The Foreign Accent Syndrome is a mixture of different language and speech disorders and is different for each patient. The British woman mentioned hadn't really picked up a French accent. Her different intonation and pronunciation, and possibly grammatical errors as a result of her stroke, simply sounded like a French accent to the ears of British people.

In the English word "garage", for example, she pronounced the "ge" in the back softly, as in French, and emphasized the second syllable with a long a. With the stress on the first syllable, the English garage became a French-sounding "garage".

Those affected are simply no longer able to form certain sounds so well or they are looking for words and correct accentuations. The foreign accent is ascribed to the environment, explains Lowit.

The bumps in the language might sound like a Russian or Chinese accent to people's ears. If you ask different people, different accents may be ascribed to the patient.

Foreign language instead of mother tongue

But what if you not only speak with a foreign-sounding accent, but also in a completely different language? In this case of bilingual aphasia, the language must have been learned beforehand, says Lowit. There are different forms.

Most people can still speak all the languages ​​they have, and they can all be impaired to different degrees. In rare cases, stroke patients can only speak their mother tongue, but no longer the foreign language. Some people can only speak the foreign language, but not their mother tongue for the time being.

In very rare cases, patients can only speak one language one day and only the other the next. If you can no longer speak a language, this does not necessarily mean that you can no longer understand it.

We can think of our brains as a closet with different things in it, says Lowit. There is an area in the closet for socks, just as there is an area in the brain for language.

The view that the foreign language and mother tongue are in completely different regions of the brain is out of date, she says. But you can imagine it as if the socks were sorted by color. A color stands for a language.

English on Mondays, German on Tuesdays

Researchers have been trying to explain these various disorders for a long time. Put simply, one can imagine that after a stroke the brain no longer has enough energy to establish all previous connections at the same time and at the same speed. And depending on the impulses the brain receives, it may then be easier to only speak one language.

If a bilingual person suffers from aphasia after a stroke, it could be theorized that the brain is more likely to connect to their mother tongue because they learned it first.

Another theory would be that it would be easier to get the second language because it has been spoken much more frequently in recent years. But it could also happen after a stroke that on Mondays the second language is stimulated by a person, a picture or a thought and the brain stays with it on that day, but the mother tongue is activated on another day.

Is that getting better again?

In most cases of bilingual aphasia, both languages ​​come back. After a stroke, certain areas of the brain are dead, but depending on the age, the brain can use other areas to take over the tasks of the dead area. This should best be supported by therapy, says Lowit.

Especially with Foreign Accent Syndrome, it is important to consult several specialists in therapy. Psychological therapy in particular can be important because losing one's way of speaking is often accompanied by an identity crisis. The best types of therapy are still being researched, but it is difficult because the cases are relatively rare.

Language disorders in old age could not only occur with a stroke but also with certain forms of dementia, so that finding words, grammar or pronunciation are impaired. The difference is that with a stroke, the loss is very drastic at first and then it goes uphill.

With dementia, things often slowly go downhill. In any case, be it important to visit one or more specialists who are familiar with the subject, says Lowit.

More on this: Stroke is often followed by dementia


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