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I woke up unable to speak English (bbc.com)
262 points by dcminter 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

This article is entirely plausible to me. I have dealt with two relatives with brain tumors. Between disease and treatment, I have seen some incredibly weird stuff. It makes me realize how little we understand how minds work.

The best analogy I have is to think of your smartphone from the perspective of a normal user. You're used to it working fine. But suddenly it stops working fine. So a technical friend hooks up a cable and turns on debug logging and all you see is a wall of gobbledygook. [1] You ask what's going on and he starts describing an enormously complicated array of components and systems, and explains that he doesn't really know how most of them work, and that there are a bunch he probably hasn't even found yet. He can try this and that and the problem maybe gets better and maybe gets worse. You're forced to realize that the phone you trusted and thought you understood is beyond your ready comprehension.

Even that analogy fails in that a) minds are much more complicated, b) they aren't designed, so there's no expectation that they should make sense under the hood, and c) you cannot buy a new brain. If it's broken, well, maybe it'll get better and maybe you'll just have to get used to it being kind of broken and be grateful it works at all.

[1] https://logmatic.io/blog/a-how-to-guide-to-debugging-with-an...

Absolutely agreed. Brains are bizarre. My mother-in-law once had what we (and her primary physician) believed was a serious flu. The moment we realized that it was much worse than that was when she started calmly speaking total nonsense. She appeared to think it was normal English, but each word was unintelligible, though it used plausible parts of speech. At that moment I picked her up and drove her to the E.R., after which she spent several days fighting meningitis. She came out of it okay, thankfully, but I still vividly remember how scary it was to watch her "talk."

Which reminds me, I should mention that for anybody with an elderly relative who experiences a sudden decline in the direction of delirium or dementia: make sure they don't have a urinary tract infection.

I have no idea how that plumbing is connected, but I have seen it happen myself, and apparently it's a not-uncommon experience for people with Alzheimer's: https://www.alzheimers.net/2014-04-03/connection-between-uti...

And yes, it is entirely freaky when somebody you have known for years starts talking utter gibberish and clearly expects to be understood. It feels deeply unreal.

Or indeed other infections. As it was explained to me, elderly people sometimes can't get a fever so the first sign something is wrong can be confusion and other odd behaviour.

In the case of my late mother, it manifested as a fixation on and paranoia about money.

Definitely one to bear in mind.

Talking gibberish is also one of the first symptoms of stroke, but that's well-known.

Reminds me of the heavy bertations news caster. She knew what she was trying to say but it was coming out as jibberish and the scary thing is that her brain still recognized the fact that she wasn’t making sense. One of those things that scares me.

Doesn't even have to be that serious. My young son went off on a sleep walk once, came in speaking complete gibberish (like a random sort on a dictionary) but in a totally normal rhythm and cadence. After I regained composure and figured out what was going on, and redirected him he want back to bed, artfully working his way around the usual Lego detritus everywhere his path. So weird you can be basically unconscious but still so functional!

Someone I know had a father-in-law with brain cancer that destroyed his ability to speak -- but he could still sing. So, that's how he communicated up until the end.

Makes me think of that buffy episode where they all suddenly sing

This is similar to Ozzy Osbourne where he stutters when speaking normally, but has no issues when singing. I've seen reports of this situation with many people.

So, is tonal language a basic layer below ..?

Singing recruits different parts of the brain.

If you search around the 'net you'll find a number of cases in which a person's principle language has changed after a traumatic brain injury. Some people have even become fluent in a language they only recalled a pidgin vocabulary from before.

Perhaps more common, but still quite rare at about one person per year worldwide, is something called foreign accent syndrome. In which a head injury causes someone with one regional accent to speak the same language with a different accent afterward, often resembling the accent of another region. Examples have included from US to British, US to French, an Oregon woman developed an Australian one, etc.

Sensory changes, changes in personality, and other things can happen with stroke or accidental brain trauma, too.

One particularly interesting case is hinted at in this article, but if you're interested your favorite search engine should turn up many more cases.: https://www.thecut.com/2016/10/the-boy-who-came-out-of-a-com...

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there are any cases of people with brain injuries speaking languages they couldn’t speak before. And any foreign accent is a case of someone’s speech becoming distorted and coincidentally sounding similar to another accent.

> Some people have even become fluent in a language they only recalled a pidgin vocabulary from before.

I wonder if could use this to learn languages more effectively. This kind of changes after a trauma shows that we remember more than we think.

We actively inhibit mixing the different parts of language we know. You can just as well remember actively without destroying another part. What's damaged in most examples here is production, not recollection, anyhow. It helps to talk to people who do not understand your native tongue to actively inhibit production in it.

If you are interested in the brain, there are good royal institute lectures on youtube.

The Neuroscience of Consciousness – with Anil Seth


The Neuroscience of Memory - Eleanor Maguire


Also, any book by oliver sacks is great if you'd rather read books rather than watch lectures.

My mental model is that the brain is a black box and unlike so many other human components, we can't break it open and learn how it works on a mechanical level. We're left with feeding it inputs and seeing what the outputs are as a way to understand how it works.

This means that at best we can have a cause-effect understanding of the brain. Until we can describe the mechanics of the brain with a strong enough model where the resulting behaviours can be predicted, we can't truly understand what the brain is doing.

That's a false dilemma. It is the same with any process. On a functional level, input output correlation is defining. On a mechanical level, we may recognize a structure equal to another black box. Indeed, dividing a structure into separate components is the key technique of learning. The problem is just how highly complex the brain is and that the "output" here is rather different from that of a blood cell or a dna strand. In fact, being based on and perhaps even interacting with those and other building blocks, is what makes the brain so abstract. So speech modeled as the output of dna is necessairly higher up the chain of abstraction than a microscopic ribose enzyme or what. But it appears to as us macro precisely because we don't understand all of it. You have effect and cause reversed.

If we knew where to look better, it wouldn't be a problem. Chances are experts know way better, but there are really few who know enough to see a bigger picture and can guide the search. I'm trying to say they are breaking it open, inserting probes and imaging it working. But as far as the "output" is concerned, everyone is naturally aspiring to be an expert. A lot of unguided superficial theorizing may be informative as well, to great length as it concerns psychology and related fields.

Also brains can remap themselves over time so if pathways are broken, sometimes new pathways can be built.

IANA neuroscientist, but it also seems that the brain has favored pathways and will follow alternates and recall alternate information sometimes if a primary skill or memory is unavailable. This woman was already fluent in both languages and fell back to German. Other cases have had people show greater skill with a foreign language than they had realized they possessed before the injury, and as they healed their primary language came back and their conscious skills with the other faded.

It's effectively biological version of fuckit.py [1]

[1] - https://github.com/ajalt/fuckitpy

Sounds like shellscript.

The most important: Theres no documentation saying how it works, its not modularized, whatever bastard got the idea to create such a system... nice, clean, elegant and consistent abstractions and APIs, please!

The idea of a brain API is both amazing and terrifying.

One could argue that such an API exists. It even understands natural language!

Rodney Brooks, robot scientist and iRobot founder jokes that God gave creatures consciousness so he could ask them when the hell is going on with them.

Wildly different localized standards though, and nobody can write a transform that actually works.

Wrappers upon wrappers and glue code ...

Self-documenting code base, right?

... and then does the opposite of what it’s told.

It's an API. Nobody said the purpose was for it to do as it's told.

It accepts input and responds according to its own training. Disobedience is a feature.

You can argue everything is a feature since the architect isn‘t around to contradict you. ;)

> b) they aren't designed

It does seem like a reasonable statement, but when you take a bit of time to think about it, billions of people disagree with it. A sobering thought.

> so there's no expectation that they should make sense under the hood

What doesn't make sense is that at first you deny a religious explanation, then without skipping a beat you ascribe (what can ironically be described as divine) mysteriousness and inscrutability to a body organ.

This not only doesn't pass the Occam's razor test, but also assumes a defeatist position that "we might never know for sure".

EDIT: I've taken uncharitable tone with this comment, and it may come across as too personal, which wasn't my intention.

Oh, we're voting on the truth? That's how that works? Please.

You're also wrong about the religious part. Plenty of people who believe in a god or gods believe that humans were created along with the rest of the universe, but many don't believe that they were designed in any useful sense of the word. You can talk to pretty much any scientist who's religious about that. E.g., a Christian astronomer may believe that his god started it all going with the big bang, but does not specifically intervene in the unfolding of creation except at specific points where miracles happen.

> you ascribe (what can ironically be described as divine) mysteriousness and inscrutability to a body organ

I don't in the slightest. I'm pointing at the contrast between my expectations about a) a system that has been expressly designed by minds similar mind to serve me and be comprehensible to them for ongoing work, and b) something that evolved over time with no such constraints. One can eventually come to understand something like that, but I think it would be foolish for an electronics expert to crack open a skull and expect that it would make sense in the same way that they would experience if they opened an iPhone.

> I've taken uncharitable tone with this comment

Yes. And given that I'm talking about my close relatives with brain tumors, I think you've picked a terrible place to do it.

> humans were created along with the rest of the universe, but many don't believe that they were designed in any useful sense of the word.

Genesis 1-27: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."

If you create an MMO and then host it somewhere where it can run in perpetuity and then you move on and never touch the servers again, can you in good faith make an argument that the game wasn't designed by programmers, artists, composers, etc?

So the players might have stumbled into a game (they were born) and believe that the game itself was created, but not designed?

The people you talk about might believe in "a" god, but certainly not the christian god. It doesn't make sense to say that you are a christian, but you believe in it à la carte.

The say they are Christians. Some even teach science at Christian colleges. I'm not sure why you think you know science (and theology) better than them given that it's their life's work.

Also, your argument from that chunk of Genesis is weak. Created "in his own image" could mean quite a lot of things. Imagine that tomorrow humans get the ability to create new universes where they can speed up the flow of time. Pretty much the first thing we'd do is to run a bunch of universes along the lines of our own to see if intelligent life like ourselves turns up.

If we succeed, did we create life? Yes. In our own image? Yes, definitely, as long as your reading of "image" is not extremely literal. Did we design it? No way. And a similar argument would apply if we jumped in further and directed evolution toward particular ends by artificial selection. We would create, but not design.

If, on the other hand, you're very literal about "image", then it requires all sorts of questions. Does your god have a nose? Does it have boogers? If not, why do I have a nose and or boogers? Is he not good at designing in his image? Et cetera.

And regardless, an approach to biblical hermeneutics that boils everything down to one sentence is generally quite weak. It's a big book. Hinging a conclusion about a complicated topic on a single verse is like doing interior decorating while looking through a toilet paper tube: an excessively narrow focus means you're going to miss things, and you're very unlikely to get the whole thing in balance.

> What doesn't make sense is that at first you deny a religious explanation, then without skipping a beat you ascribe (what can ironically be described as divine) mysteriousness and inscrutability to a body organ.

Are you saying that if we don't understand something, it follows that it must be of divine origin? That hardly makes sense. I don't see the contradiction in the op you seem to see here.

actually, if you believe in natural evolution, brains are designed.

just because there isn't any intelligence involved, doesn't mean that the brain isn't a meticulously crafted piece of perfection.

It's probably not, though. Evolution doesn't select for perfection, and many aspects of our evolutionary derived bodies are frankly bizarre.

Take the eye as an example. There's no need for us to have a blind spot. Octopus have eyes almost identical in design, but without a blind spot - convergent evolution meant that both species ended up developing very similar eyes but with one crucial difference: in humans, the retina is wired the wrong way round.

The retina is like a huge array of light detecting cells. In octopus, these cells are connected to the optic nerve on the back side. In humans, they connect on the front side. The blind spot in humans is because of the need for a hole in the retina for the optic nerve to pass through and split and connect to the retina proper.

If there isn't intelligence involved, then it definitely isn't designed. Or crafted, for that matter.

I suppose it could be perfect, by some particular criteria. But it seems unlikely. And in the case of the human brain, it's definitely untrue. The selection criteria for the human brain have been shifting wildly over the last few million years, so it's guaranteed not to be perfect.

Note, for example the long list of cognitive biases that we've so far discovered: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

Our brains evolved by having the features needed to keep us alive long enough to reproduce.

Ultimately we, as a species, designed our own brain.

Hydrogen, given long enough, starts to wonder where it came from, and where it is going.

minds are much more complicated

It's actually not clear if brains are more complicated to understand than modern smartphones. Modern smartphones are designed using numerous abstraction levels - it makes it easier to design, but harder to understand if you don't know those abstractions. Brain, on the other hand, might have fewer fundamental algorithms/methods. In fact, most of the brain complexity could just be evolutionary quirks, some to make to make it's slightly more efficient, others to make some biological functions easier, etc. In the end, it might turn out that the actual human intelligence is not that hard to understand once we got through understanding all those design quirks.

This might sound ridiculous - after all a human brain looks so much more complex than an iPhone! But if you didn't know anything about transistors, analog circuit design, digital logic design, computer architecture, OS architecture, and software engineering (not to mention the complexity of cellular protocols), you would have a really hard time reverse engineering a smartphone.

You will note that I said minds, not brains. Even once we understand the hardware of the brain, I think we'll have an incredibly long way to go to understand the mind that runs on top of it.

I'll add that the neurologists I've talked with understand a great deal about the hardware of the brain; the organ has been receiving intense study for a long time. But even for them their most common reaction is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ when confronted with basic questions like "why is he doing that?" and "will he get better or worse?"

You will note that I mentioned both hardware and software components of the smartphone. If you have no idea where one starts and another ends, then all you see is electrons running around in circles, both in a brain, and in a smartphone. Most mobile CPU designers would have a hard time debugging iOS apps, and most iOS devs would have a hard time debugging Apple A12 design. This, however, does not mean that fundamental principles which make a smartphone "smart" are hard to understand: concept of a stored program, high level programming language commands, user interface, etc. But these fundamental principles are buried behind massive design complexities which might not be directly related to the "intelligence" aspect of the phone (computer). I suspect (hope) this also applies to brains.

I think you hit the nail on the head here.

The brain is perfectly understandable, it's just that we need to learn to understand more things about it before we get there.

We designed everything in a smartphone and can say with confidence that it works a certain way, and even explain why. The brain was designed by evolution, and while we mostly understand what it does, we aren't quite sure of the how and why yet.

> The brain is perfectly understandable, it's just that we need to learn to understand more things about it before we get there.

Perhaps. While the mobile phone might be more complicated than the human brain (I suspect not), that doesn't mean that the human brain is perfectly understandable.

The smartphone was designed by a large number of groups that all built and shared abstractions with the express purpose of these being understandable by other groups. The smart phone's design is purposely built to be comprehensible to the human mind. There is no clear reason to expect that there are clean, human friendly abstractions we can make about all the different layers on which the brain inter-operates.

To analogize to software, it may be like the difference between diving into well documented code that has: clean separation of concerns, standard libraries and design patterns, hardware agnostic implementation, a modern programming language vs code that was coded by a self-taught developer using design patterns that they made up, employs no separation of concerns and relies on hardware timing and interference quirks.

The former may have far more complicated functionality, but still be easier to understand and reason about than the latter because the former was designed to be easy to understand.

No single person understands how a modern smartphone is built. From the camera optics, transistors, OS, wireless systems, AI, etc it simply covers enough domains to be incomprehensible for a single person. What abstraction provides is a means for organizations to understand it.

By comparison DNA is actually a fairly reasonable, program 3 Billion base pairs, but fairly compressible and that’s covering far more than just the brain. But the brain lacks those easily separated chunks, making it harder to decode but not nessisarily more complex.

still be easier to understand and reason about than the latter because the former was designed to be easy to understand.

All those things you mentioned: clean separation of concerns, standard libraries, etc, are only easier to understand if you already know about them. If you have no clue what a standard library is, what it does, or how it fits in the design, then you're faced with more complexity to understand than a code which implements everything from scratch.

My brother in law had something similar happen to him recently: He was playing golf and suddenly lost the ability to speak. Turns out he was having a stroke. He had no other symptoms, no loss of of motor ability, nor the ability to understand language, nor the ability to write. He didn't even realize he was having a stroke. He drove himself home where his wife recognized that he was having a stroke and drove him to the hospital. Fortunately, they arrived in time to get a TPA shot and he made an almost full recovery. He seems completely normal, but every now and then he will still make an odd word substitution completely out of the corn flake. (Yeah, that's what it sounds like when it happens.)

Similar thing happened to a family friend. She had a stroke and lost her English and could only speak her first language, Mandarin. She was an English literature teacher in Canada for 40 years. Her children only had basic Mandarin... not a good situation.

Not good, but going from "native unexercised Mandarin" to "fluent" is a lot easier than suddenly having to learn a foreign language.

I mean, other than not being able to communicate with her children or fellow Canadians.

I was talking about the children.

Hm, "basic Mandarin" sounds like much less than "native, unexercised" to me, as I feel that the latter implies an earlier native fluency, but I see that could be a matter of opinion. Eg, it's possible they can fully understand her but can't speak it particularly well.

I've some weird type of a migraine which sometimes I'm not able to read or speak properly in English or Spanish (Always one of these combinations, fortunately). It's like I forgot how the words are "divided by syllables" and I'm not able to read or speak properly. Fortunately, it's for a few minutes and I got a migraine just one or two times a year. I went to the doctor and he said it's not dangerous and there is nothing to do. Some people have migraines every week, even in the worst cases with vision loss so my problem is nothing compared to that.

I have migraines every once in a long while where I lose the ability to read. I can sound out words and recognize them but can't grok the meanings of the simplest sentences. Every thing else is fine. I can speak and reason perfectly. Just not read. It is the weirdest thing I've ever experienced. I definitely have more compassion for illiterate people making their way in life.

That sounds really frustrating. Do you have to warn friends and co-workers in advance? Or is it short-lived enough that you can just go hide until it passes?

Yes, I did it. Actually, I have a sleep mask in my job. It's useful to reduce a headache when everything is normal again. I discovered it a few years ago after 20 years having this migraine but the read/speak thing started about 8 years ago (at least).

I lost my sense of smell and taste after a head injury. I remember walking into a Starbucks and it wreaking of fish! The hardest part was when I first bit into a cookie, post injury, and I couldn't recognize the taste :(

Took months to get it all back.

I lost not all but a good portion of my sense of smell, and it never came fully back. That was over twenty years ago.

A co-worker of mine got some kind of nasal surgery and got back some long lost part of his sense of smell. You mind consider looking into that.

I have had a poor sence of smell my whole life, it seems, and have considered looking into why and how it might be fixed.

I somehow doubt nasal surgery will account for what I lost after a blunt force head trauma, but it might mitigate things by addressing other issues. Thanks for the idea.

An ex girlfriend of mine had no sense of taste or smell from birth to her late teens, until she had some kind of sinus surgery. One of her most vivid memories from the first week post, was encountering the glorious olfactory celebration that is a skunk.

Something similar, albeit not as severe happened to me, also as a result of a bicycle-related head injury.

I was on my way back home in Montreal. I consider English to be my second language. I have two mother tongues - Ukrainian and Russian. And, due to living in Montreal, I had passable French. So I lost ability to speak or understand French for a few days. After I re-gained it, it became visibly worse. Also I had short term amnesia - didn't know who I was, where I lived or where I was going from/to. Luckily, most of the things came back to me within the next few hours or days.

Brain is a bizarre device...

Not questioning the husband's devotion to his wife, but it seems a bit odd to me that he would take an 18 month sabbatical and focus on re-teaching her a language that keeps slipping out of her mind due to brain injury. You would think that teaching himself German would be the low-hanging fruit.

The article doesn't say he took a sabbatical to re-teach her English -- it says he took the sabbatical to support her. It also doesn't say he didn't work on improving his German during that time.

I worked from home for 12 weeks to help my wife recover from a surgery. She initially needed help moving around the house, for her safety, and slept most of the day.

Brain injuries are EXTREMELY difficult and time consuming to recover from, far more so than more typical injuries. The woman in the article was almost certainly going through a massive adjustment and needed tons of help. It's not a simple matter of a bump on the leg and shoulder, and whoops, she's living in a country where she doesn't know the language, as if she was a tourist.

I take ~3 weeks off to help my wife post-baby for the same reasons.

Presumably she still needs to interact with other English-speaking people.

Right. I think this is the real reason for teaching her English.

Also the psychological trauma of no longer being able to speak a language you technically know.

I imagine there could also be some hope that through "exercise", the brain and nervous system could try to rebuild its former capacity. Physiotherapy for the brain. I imagine that would be a good thing for her health in general. I've read a lot of articles over the years about the possibility, but never read anything conclusive. So it's just hearsay, but I can imagine hanging onto this kind of hope if I were in his shoes. It wouldn't be about communicating with her, it would be about helping her heal and preventing anything from getting worse.

What? It's far more practical to reteach his wife the language she lost, which also happens to be his first language AND the primary language of the country they live it.

If she can't retain it, then teaching it to her is not practical, regardless of how useful it would be if she hypothetically learned it.

A lesson the American school system could stand to learn too. :/

That's not the situation. She did improve significantly, although not to complete recovery.

>Not questioning the husband's devotion to his wife

But baseless assumptions are ok?

I am happy for him he was in a position where he could take an 18 month sabattical. I would be fucked.

I think humanity is complicating the study of the brain by using the feedback of the individual as a basis to create judgement. Example: "I don't remember" = "memory loss"

For the example above, it could be

  "i don't remember" 

  => memory blocked 

  => too much information interference 


  emotional hinderance like fear of remembering


  insufficient information to recall
It is difficult to explain, but we are studying very basic primitive feedback responses to try to determine very complex problems. And we study mental conditions and neurological conditions separately that one hardly informs the other.

Here is a theory: Prior chronic emotional pain can stymy recovery of cognition permanently. Beneficial emotions can activate new parts of the brain and create new personalities unlike what existed before.

If I remember correctly, when you learn a new language after age 10, the brain encodes the new language in a region adjacent to the one where your mother language is encoded, which means that any localized injury on this part of the brain may impact your ability to speak just one of them.

Source: Sapolsky's lecture about language: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIOQgY1tqrU&list=PL150326949...

If you want to understand better how the brain works, I really recommend watching the whole course.

I grew up speaking Mandarin in my household and spoke English at school, but I also picked up Spanish in highschool and Japanese in college.

If I were to guess, my brain would probably place Mandarin and English in "mother language" part of the brain and Japanese and Spanish part in the adjacent region. I wonder what I would lose if I were to sustain an injury. Would I lose one group over another group?

On another note, as with many American highschool students learning Spanish, I fell out of practice and now I can't really communicate in Spanish at all. When I do attempt to speak Spanish, I notice that I sometimes replace words in Spanish with Japanese ones. Can't be sure whether or not it's because of phonological similarities of Japanese and Spanish, or maybe my Japanese overwrote some of my Spanish.

Not to make light of a woman's quite serious injury, but it reminded me of the short film Fluent Dysphasia where a head trauma causes Stephen Rea to only speak and understand Irish gaelic.


I remember reading cases where elderly people in nursing homes who have lived in (Sweden?) for almost their entire reverted to speaking Finnish as that was the language they grew up speaking.

I put Sweden in parentheses with a question mark because I can’t be sure that is in fact Sweden. It could also be the US. I read about it awhile ago and not in English. Sorry.

I know someone who had a similar experience after an operation where he wasn't able to speak English, only Spanish. Interesting thing was, his mother tongue is English and he learned Spanish when he was around 20. He eventually recovered after a few hours, but I've always wondered how it would feel to know you knew a language perfectly at one point yet be unable to understand it in the moment.

As someone who has moved out of their home country, and that barely speaks their native language anymore, I can kind of picture this happening to me. I've literally forgotten things about the language I've spoken all my life after not speaking it daily for just 3 years. It's very weird and vexing at times.

I have serious health issues. My mother is German and I speak a little German, though not that well. However, I would have had early exposure to the language.

I have had a few incidents where, for an hour or so, I was exhausted and distressed and couldn't manage to speak English, only German. I could understand English, but not speak it.

<I'm not a linguist, please don't laugh at my elementary knowledge> I only knew Noam Chomsky from his political thoughts and knew he dabbled in linguistics but never knew what exactly he contributed to in this field.

I only found out recently (while reading The Story of Human Language) that he's actually huge[ly disruptive] in the field and came up with this line of thinking. That language isn't just an expression of culture or of general intelligence but is genetic.

His justifications were that 1, in cases where children were isolated from outside contact from birth, once reintegrated at an older age, they can become "generally intelligent and cultured" but can fail to ever learn a language which is very peculiar. 2, that culture can be wildly diverse but there are no non-speaking human groups just like there are no non-reproducing human groups. And 3, this particular case. Where damage to the brain affects very particular parts of not just speech but language without affecting other cognitive functions.

This is a very lame summary of Chomsky's position. Genetics is not at the core at all. The minimalist program and universal grammar are the key search terms for it. The idea was cleverly paraphrased to be rather unspecific.

The term grammar is rather formulaic, but the problem is broader, if language ability is seen as an important factor for intelligence.

I believe this sort of thing is known as aphasia; it was fascinating to read about what it can be like in someone multilingual.

Theres an episode [1] of Helen Zaltzman’s fantastic podcast The Allusionist that deals with a similar story: a woman who has to essentially re-learn how to speak and understand English after a brain aneurysm.

I highly recommend giving it a listen if you’re interested; it’s only half an hour or so and really deepened my appreciation of how plastic and resilient our brains can be.

[1]: https://www.theallusionist.org/allusionist/eclipse

This reminds me of "An Anthropologist On Mars" by Oliver Sacks. The first story of seven is of a painter who gets in a car accident. He develops Cerebral achromatopsia[0] and loses the ability to see and think in terms of any colors other than basically a gray-scale. It was this story (among the others in the book) that helped me become aware of just how interconnected and bizarre the human brain is.


I've once drank too much vodka and found myself totally unable to speak my native language (which I used everyday during those says and what everybody around was speaking) and only able to speak English (or French). That happened to be fairly inconvenient as the friend of mine that was drinking with me was particularly bad at foreign languages.

I came back from a summer intensive course in French. Although I was already fluent in German, for a week after returning, every time I opened my mouth to speak German, French came out.

Was German your second language? I had a similar 'displacement' experience while learning a third language - my brain would offer phrases in my second language instead! I suspect it was defaulting to "how do I say this, but not in my first language" and whichever language is more readily available is served up.


I was fine after that first week. During it, I'd just gone from intensive French (zero to third-year college level conversational and academic proficiency/placement in seven weeks) to a German class, with a week or two in between the one ending and the other starting.

In all my secondary language learning, I've worked hard to leave other languages behind/alone and just function, including mentally, in the target language. I wanted to express an idea, and it came out in French. Not words or phrases; my brain was simply in "French mode".

That's what I'd been doing for a couple of months (in Vermont, not even in another country), and it took a while to regain some flexibility in that pattern.

Reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode with Robert Klein called Wordplay.

I experienced something a bit similar during a migraine episode whilst in University.

Normal day occurs and I rent a movie from the school library; 'M' [1931] starring Peter Lorre. German spoken, English subtitles. I functionally don't know German; English is my native language. All is well.

Partway through the film I notice my migraine symptoms coming on [grey-green soup-static eating into my vision from my optical peripheral, tingly numbness spreading up from my fingers, &c]. I know I'm screwed for the night, the best I can do is take pills and hope to "sleep it off" at this point. I decide to trooper it out and keep going with the movie 'cause I'm at a loss either way and I know this dance.

But then I realize that I could no longer understand the English subtitles, a new symptom for me at the time. I could read the subtitles, I knew they were English, I knew I knew I should be able to understand them, but I couldn't take their meaning. So here I am watching a movie where I don't understand the spoken or written language at all. All I had was my enjoyment of Peter Lorre, my appreciation of film noir, my love of film, and the inherent fundamental understanding of body language and facial expression.

About 75% through the film, one of my roommates comes in and sits down. "So, what're you watching?"

I swear he thought I was drunk.

Me: "This guy ... kill kids ... whistle. People ... not like guy."

Him: "Take your time."

Me: "This ... the people. Police ... no nothing. People ... this! ... these! ... people ... get guy."

Him: "OK."

Me: "The town... guy on trial. No police. Him! Bad guy. Whistles. Dead ... kids. City people ... guy on trial. No police."

Him: "I think I understand. Are you ok? Had too much?"

Me: "OK. Migraine. Watching movie. See? This ... Peter L-L-Lorre. Buggy eyes. Actor. Like a bug."

Him: "... yes. He's in this movie."

Me: "Famous actor! Now ... guilty from ... mob. The city. Death no police but ... dead whistling."

Him: "OK. Sounds like a good movie. See you tomorrow."

Me: "Yes. Tomorrow good ... movie."


I'm not kidding, I actually did talk like a drunken over-acted dramatization of Shatner. My actual language skills were out the window that night. I can't tell you how many times I dropped my Imitrex pills onto the floor before dropping myself into bed.

Yes, I'm better now against the migraines so I have little worries there on that matter but back then it was a going concern.

Since the symptoms are similar to a stroke, I'd be careful about going on, if there's the slightest chance that it can cause damage.

On the whole I agree, but at least on the surface I could still smile and operate both arms properly. The finger-tingling was "ambidextrous" [if that makes sense], as was the vision issue ["ambiocular"? I make up words and phrases as convenient sometimes].

But yes, look out for strokes. "FAST" ... Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time to call emergency services. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FAST_(stroke)

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