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?

Learning a language often takes years to master. Image credit eltpics via Flickr.

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.

Related links:

Explainer: what is Foreign Accent Syndrome?

Australian Man Comes Out of Coma Able to Speak Mandarin, But Not English

The Strange Case of the American Tennis Pro Who Forgot English One Day and Thought He Was Swedish



9 Responses to “If you could learn a language overnight, would you?”

  1. abjerre says:

    Eventhough I do research in Neuroscience, I keep getting surprised of how complex the brain is and how it works in mysterious ways. Reading through your post I couldn’t help but laugh a bit. These things are so bizarre. And you described them so well.

    You mention, that you have to have been exposed to the language for it to manifest. Do you happen to know “how much”? Like, I’d like to prepare for what language I’ll wake up with one day, if I am so unfortunate to experience this.
    Then at least I can be ahead of it and make friends from those countries… You know, just to be sure. 😉

  2. Jeremy Le says:

    Thanks Megany, sometimes the easiest way out isn’t the best right ?

  3. Jeremy Le says:

    Thanks Sally! I’m proud of that one

  4. Sally Jenkins says:

    “…so maybe stick your head in the books and not into a wall.” Haha – the perfect final sentence! Really well written article Jeremy, very enjoyable to read.

  5. megany says:

    I actually didn’t know about either of these syndromes so this was a really interesting post to read. I liked how you ended it too with the comment about the head in the wall. We complain about how difficult it is to learn a language but really it is much better than waking up from a traumatic accident speaking differently

  6. Jeremy Le says:

    Thanks emilia, I didnt know either prior to researching the topic.

  7. emilia bisogni says:

    I have seen videos of these syndromes before! Its actually crazy. I didn’t realise the price that they had to pay was so high.. this was a really interesting and informative read.

  8. Jeremy Le says:

    Thanks Rachel! Glad you learned something.

  9. Rachel King says:

    This is such a bizarre syndrome, I definitely think there are more consequences than you’d first think. I think your use of subheadings helped the writing flow nicely.