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Can You Wake Up from a Coma Speaking a Different Language?

Can brain damage make you speak a different language and forget your own?

Comas have always been a favorite plot device of mine. Send someone into a coma for a little while and they wake up with all sorts of magical abilities. Whether it is the ability to see the future in Stephen King's Dead Zone, or more recently Sun's waking up only able to speak Korean but understanding English -- on the TV show Lost, a bump on a head has always been a good plot device.

That's fiction of course, but can an insult to the brain really leaving you speaking the wrong language?

Recently, there have been a number of reports about a 13 year old Croatian girl who was in a coma for 24 hours. She wakes up from the coma speaking only German - not her native Croatian. While the girl was studying German before her illness and watching German TV shows at home, she awoke speaking the new language much better than before the illness, according to press reports. One doctor examining her declared it "unexplainable by science."

However, Michel Paradis, a neurolinguist at McGill University in Montreal told Discovery News that so called "bilingual aphasia" has been observed before and is possible because we use different parts of our brain for learning, translating and expressing language. We see this often in patients presenting with acute CVA. They may understand what we are saying but be unable to speak (expressive aphasia).

"This has been observed thousands of times," Paradis said. "It's not surprising at all. I'd like to know all the facts, but it's quite possible that after a coma, you'd have problems which might be located in such a way in the brain that they affect one language but not another."

In another case, a Czech race car driver awoke from a crash speaking only English, but the effect was temporary.

 "When a trauma to the brain occurs -- due to a car accident or a stroke, tumor, or other causes -- some parts of the network may be spared while some others temporarily or irreversibly damaged,"  speech-language pathologist Regina Jokel told ABC news. "It is not very common, but certainly not unusual for a multilingual person to lose, completely or partially, one language but retain another."

Over at NeuroLogica, skeptic and neurologist Steven Novella breaks down the current science on language acquisition, use and the areas of the brain involved. When the girl learned to speak German (as an infant, young child or adult) seems to affect what part of the brain we use for primary and secondary processing. There are many forms of aphasia that can be caused by brain damage, but it is rare that damage to the brain would impair the ability to speak a primary language while allowing greater fluency of a secondary language. He writes:

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.
This story has suddenly become more interesting. I would like to hear more details about the case, like how old she was when she learned German. It if, of course, possible that her language change is more psychological and neurological. I hope her doctors do not persist in the silly notion that her case is “unexplainable” – there is actually a literature on this question and neuroscientists are making progress in sorting out how multiple languages are processed in the brain. This case, if properly explored, could provide a valuable addition to that literature.
This case may also demonstrate, therefore, why the scientific and critical approach to anomalous cases is more valuable than the mystery-mongering (“unexplainable”) approach. It is better to assume that we can figure things out, if we are willing to try. 
Foriegn Language Syndrome from NeuroLogica 
Discovery News: Coma Victim's Language Change
Paradoxical Switching to a Barely-mastered Second Language by an Aphasic Patient

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