If you could learn a language overnight, would you?
Imagine waking up one day and being able to speak an entirely new language fluently. For several people, this is exactly what they’ve been able to achieve, but at what cost?
Spoken like a true foreigner
Many of you may have heard of the Foreign Accent Syndrome, a neurological disorder that replaces your native accent with another, usually after a significant brain injury. Although these stories are often sensationalised in the media, instances of FAS have been reported since the 1900s.
The most famous, earliest description of FAS was the experience of Norwegian woman Astrid. In 1941, during World War II, she was hit in the head by shrapnel during a bomb raid and woke up several days later with a foreign accent, described by neurologist Monrad-Krohn as ‘German in origin’. Her community shunned her after her recovery, suspecting that she was a spy, and shop vendors often refused to serve her.
More recent examples include an Australian woman speaking in a French accent after a car-crash, an American woman speaking in a British accent after having a stroke, and a British man developing a Russian accent.
What about Foreign Language Syndrome?
In extreme cases, a similar condition called Foreign Language Syndrome describes people who wake up and are able to speak an entirely new language fluently.
Australian Ben McMahon seemingly learned Mandarin overnight when he woke up from a coma due to a car crash. Since then, he has appeared on several Chinese TV shows. He plans to use his newfound language skills to foster a better relationship between Australia and China.
Foreign Language Syndrome isn’t just restricted to young people either. An 81 year old Englishman, despite not having been to Wales in over 71 years and never learning the language, woke up from a three week coma speaking only in fluent Welsh.
So, what’s the catch?
Unless you’ve been exposed to it, you can’t learn a complete new language from a hit on the head. Ben McMahon had already studied Mandarin in highschool but wasn’t the best at it and certainly not fluent. Neurologists suspect that his innate skills resurfaced after his injury. He also didn’t wake up with a complete mastery of the language and still needed to attend classes.
In almost all cases of foreign accent or language syndrome, patients lose their ability to speak in their native language temporarily and sometimes, permanently. Doctors call it aphasia, the inability to produce speech due to a brain lesion in Broca’s area of the brain. In FLS patients, it is thought that the brain can repair and rewire itself to another area that stores the information of another language. It’s almost like a trade, you must sacrifice the language you already know to learn a new one quickly.
This usually has a detrimental impact to a person’s health, especially their psychological and social well-being. In Palm Springs, a man woke up with amnesia and had no memory of his past, speaking only in Swedish. However, according to his passport, he was Michael Boatwright, an American-born citizen and retired pro-tennis player. He had completely lost his ability to speak English as well as memories of friends and family. 14 months later, he was found dead in his new home in Sweden, which authorities later ruled to be apparent suicide.
It’s evident that those with FAS or FLS can also suffer from the emotional toll of losing the ability to communicate properly with loved ones. Although learning a language overnight might sound like lucrative offer, it certainly does not come without its consequences, so maybe stick your head in the books and not into a wall.