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Child Development

The Man Who Could No Longer Speak To His Wife

A case of multilingual aphasia

Post written by François Grosjean.

Communication with language(s) is so much part of our lives that we take it for granted—at least, those of us who are not language scientists. However, when it breaks down, we suddenly realize how crucial it is to our existence. Here is an example taken from well-known case studies of multilingual aphasia.

A forty-four year old man who had suffered from a stroke was referred to Dr. Mieczyslaw Minkowski of Zurich, Switzerland. His mother tongue was Swiss German and his second language was Standard German which he had learned at school. (Note that Swiss German is not intelligible to Standard German speakers). He had also learned a little French in his school years. At the age of nineteen, he went to France where he worked for some six years. During his stay, French became his everyday means of communication and he quickly became fluent in it.

At age 25, he returned to Switzerland and worked as a railroad conductor and then as a trader. He married a childhood friend and settled in Zurich. Together they spoke Swiss German as they did with their two children, their friends and their acquaintances.

When the man had his stroke, some nineteen years after having returned to his native country, he lost consciousness for several hours. On recovery, it was found that his language abilities were impaired—he suffered from aphasia. He recovered comprehension of his three languages within a day or two but his speech was altered severely. To everyone's surprise, when he started to speak, first producing a few words, then more and more, it was in French only, a language he had rarely used since his return! His wife could not understand him as she didn't speak French and so, his children, with their poor school French, had to act as interpreters between the two!

His French improved quite quickly and then he began to slowly recover his second language, Standard German. As for Swiss German, it did not reappear until four months after his stroke. Two months later, his best language was still French; German was improving quite rapidly but he still spoke Swiss German in a very hesitant manner.

It was only some time later, during the Christmas vacation, that his Swiss German suddenly became almost fluent, as did his German. But then his French started to regress! This continued, and in time he could no longer describe in French what he had read; he had to use German or Swiss German.

McGill University linguist Michel Paradis termed this type of recovery pattern from aphasia "antagonistic"—one language regresses (in this case, French) as the others progress (German and Swiss German). French was the first language the patient recovered; then, as German and Swiss German progressed, French started to lose ground. At the end of the observation period, he had lost almost all fluency in that language.

In another post, I give examples of other non-parallel recovery patterns from aphasia (see here). I also go over the factors that may account for which languages are recovered. What is interesting in this particular case, though, is to try to understand why French, which was not the person's mother tongue or most used language, should have been recovered first.

Dr. Mieczyslaw Minkowski was one of the first researchers to propose psychosocial factors to account for the language recovery of aphasic patients. In order to explain the restitution of this man's languages in the reverse order in which he had learned them, and used them, he questioned him on his earlier life. The patient reported that the most beautiful years of his life had been those spent in France in his early twenties. And his great love had been a French woman with whom he had lived for some time. On his return to Switzerland, he had remained a staunch francophile, and he stated that his preferred language was French even though he rarely used it.

This case study reminds us of the myth that I have already discussed that bilinguals express their emotions in their first language (see here). As Temple University researcher Aneta Pavlenko states, things are much more complex than that. The relationship between emotions and bilingualism plays out differently for different individuals. This is true when language abilities are unimpaired, as it is when they are impaired, as we have just seen here.

Templates courtesy of Presentation Magazine.


Martin R. Gitterman, Miral Goral & Loraine K. Obler (2012; eds.). Aspects of Multilingual Aphasia. Bristol / Buffalo / Toronto: Multilingual Matters.

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area.

François Grosjean's website.

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