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Unlocking The Brain: When Language Knowledge Can't Be Explained

Is it possible to dream in a language you've never been exposed to? Here, we present the rational and the phenomenological take on xenoglossy.

Earlier this summer, I had a dream that someone was speaking to me in another language. I didn’t know what she was saying, necessarily — just that she was speaking Hebrew. When I woke up, I did some Googling and discovered that at least some of what I heard were actual Hebrew words. Ein, for example, roughly translates to "none."

To be fair, this knowledge probably didn’t arrive out of the ether. I briefly studied Hebrew for my bat mitzvah when I was 13, and as far as memory is concerned, the subconscious certainly plays the long game.

That’s why it was a little harder to explain away my subsequent dream in Hindi, a language that I really did have very little exposure to. By "dream in Hindi," I really mean one word — a rather simple word — but the point remains. Something in my subconscious had grabbed hold of a knowledge that lay just beyond my conscious perception, and further research revealed that I wasn’t alone in my experience.

The concept of xenoglossy, defined as the "putative phenomenon in which a person is able to speak a language that they could not have acquired by natural means," has been around since Biblical times (or earlier). Stories abound of individuals achieving dream-time fluency in languages they barely know, and everyone’s heard of at least one person who suffered a stroke and woke up speaking a completely different language.

Tempting as it is to ascribe this to paranormal or metaphysical hijinks, there’s also a rational explanation worth considering. But is the scientific case a thorough one, or does it leave something to be desired? Here are two takes — the scientific, and the slightly more poetic — on our apparent ability to "download" other languages from beyond.

Xenoglossy

The Case Studies

Presented for your consideration, here a few of the well-known cases of xenoglossy.

  • When a Croatian teenager awoke from a brief 24-hour coma in 2010, she found she could no longer speak Croatian, her native tongue, but she was fluent in German, a language she had only just started studying.

  • In 2007, a Czech speedway rider’s teammates witnessed him speaking perfect English to paramedics following a crash that briefly knocked him out. Prior to the accident, Matej Kus struggled to speak in broken English, but according to witnesses, he was speaking in a "really clear English accent, no dialect or anything." He had no memory of the incident after a couple of days, and he soon reverted to his heavily accented, rudimentary English.

  • A high-school soccer player from Georgia landed in a three-day coma after he was kicked in the head. When he woke up in the hospital, he had apparently forgotten how to speak English, but he was suddenly fluent in Spanish. The situation gradually reversed itself as he healed, and he returned to "normal" again.

  • In 2013, a man named Michael Boatwright was found unconscious in a motel. When he awoke in the hospital, he claimed his name was Johan Elk, and he could only speak in Swedish. He had previously studied Swedish in the 1980s, so this seems somewhat plausible.

  • Liu Jieyu, a 94-year-old Chinese woman, suffered a stroke in 2015 and entered a two-week coma. Upon regaining consciousness, she was speaking in perfect English, with no apparent knowledge of her native tongue. She had previously taught English, but hadn’t spoken it in 30 years.

  • An 81-year-old Englishman awoke from a stroke speaking exclusively in Welsh, even though he’d grown up speaking English. He had only spent a few months in Wales, and that was 70 years before. Doctors attributed the lapse to a brain disorder called aphasia, and he is now re-learning English.

  • A 21-year-old Australian university student woke up in a hospital after a head-on car crash. Though his native language was English, he was suddenly fluent in Mandarin, despite never being very good at it when he studied the language in high school. He became so good at Mandarin that he became the host of the Chinese television program Au My Ga (Oh, My God).

Xenoglossy

The Skeptical Take

There’s a fairly obvious trend you can observe by skimming the above examples: almost all of the people mentioned above had had some prior exposure to their "new" language. It’s remarkable that one could make the leap from rudimentary language basics to sudden fluency, but it still seems plausible that the subconscious mind could retain things that the conscious mind could not.

According to Queensland Brain Institute neuroscientist Pankaj Sah, certain brain trauma will cause the brain to momentarily lean more heavily on the part of the brain where secondary languages are stored, even if they’ve mostly been forgotten.

Gregory O’Shanick of the Center for Neurorehabilitation Services in Virginia explains it so: while native language knowledge is stored on the left side of the brain, secondary language knowledge is mainly stored on the right side, especially if the languages were acquired later in life. When trauma patients wake up with a stronger grasp of the secondary language, it’s highly possible that this is the result of an injury to the left side of the brain.

Sometimes referred to as Foreign Language Syndrome, a more technical term for this phenomenon is bilingual or polyglot aphasia. Aphasia, which involves damage to any part of the brain’s language cortex, can play out in a handful of ways. Languages learned together from infancy are typically lost and recovered in tandem, while secondary languages (mainly those learned after the age of 4) take longer to recover. In some cases, patients involuntarily switch between languages, or they are only able to speak one language at a time.

While native language knowledge is stored on the left side of the brain, secondary language knowledge is mainly stored on the right side, especially if the languages were acquired later in life. When trauma patients wake up with a stronger grasp of the secondary language, it’s highly possible that this is the result of an injury to the left side of the brain.

Here’s a first-hand account from a user named "Shoshi" on Discover Magazine:

I developed FLS about 4 weeks ago. I am a diabetic. I awoke on the last Sunday of May 2017 with an extreme case of hypoglycemia and passed out twice. When I came to I had a severe headache on the right front and right back of my head. When I tried to speak, it came out in a fluent mix of languages that I have studied years ago, with perfect accents. I keyed the word "aphasia" into my phone to explain to my family what I thought was happening…and then my bf called 911…

…After 5 hours, when my BP was reduced, my English language returned and the other languages left. However, I still struggled, and still do now, with speaking certain things in English…The neurologist warned that I could slip permanently into the Foreign Language. I currently slip in and out 2-6 times a day. And also every time now that I have a low blood sugar I also start speaking in FL. When it happens I usually just shut my mouth tight, afraid to speak. It is very disturbing. It changes my whole demeanor. I don’t sound like the same person. I have no control over what language comes out when I speak, and sometimes it’s languages I studied, all mixed up. While it may sound funny, for those of us who suffer with it, it’s terrible. Also I do hear and understand English during this time.

This is not to be confused with Foreign Accent Syndrome, which causes stroke or brain trauma patients to speak as though they have a foreign accent. This is not truly an accent, but a speech impairment that sounds like an accent.

All in all, there has been very little serious academic inquiry involving this phenomenon, but much of the existing literature that does make a "miraculous" case for xenoglossy points to the work of Ian Stevenson, former research professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School, whose research focused heavily on reincarnation and the paranormal.

Linguistics scholar Sarah Grey Thomason published a lengthy criticism of his work, however, arguing that the supposed "fluency" achieved by those with xenoglossy is actually pretty basic at best. In one case study she references, an American housewife manifested a male personality under hypnosis in the 1950s. The secondary persona, a male Swedish peasant, was able to answer Swedish questions in Swedish. In one session, she used roughly 60 Swedish words "spontaneously" (or before hearing them spoken in the format of a question). When cognates with English, German or Yiddish were eliminated, there were only 31 intelligible words. Additionally, the vast majority of the answers were one- or two-word sentences, with no complex constructions. Plus, her pronunciation was somewhat spotty.

Xenoglossy

The Dreamy Take

Much of the above examples have involved brain trauma that resulted in a temporary reliance on a secondary language. But what about people who dream in languages they (supposedly) never learned?

According to Stephen Dutch (in an article referenced by Psychology Today), you don’t need to be fluent in another language in order to dream in it intelligibly. The subconscious is good at recording things you may have heard in passing.

One professional psychic medium writes that he has experienced episodes of xenoglossy during consultations with foreign clients. In these sessions, he says he has occasionally been able to speak in short sentences to them in their native language — including Urdu, Croatian and Chinese — despite having no prior knowledge of them.

The internet is also rife with accounts of "foreign language dream downloads" — some involving languages the subject had previously been exposed to, and some involving languages that seemed to arrive out of the ether. These types of first-hand, anecdotal accounts are difficult to truly verify. What’s more, dreams may be notoriously unreliable, and many times what "feels" like fluency in another language doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. That said, science is often poorly equipped to properly do justice to experiences that wield a major emotional or psychological impact.

You be the judge:

I have been dreaming in foreign languages since I was about 7 years old. My grandmother spoke German around me until I was 6, which is when we moved away. After moving, I started to dream in German, though I didn’t know the language, only basics and numbers, in my dreams I had full conversations in German, things were even written in German! It felt like as a child I was subconsciously containing the language (she never spoke english to me, only German) and was only able to access it in my dreams. I also dream in French as my other Grandmother (moms side) spoke French to me. My other Grandmother was from Germany, and my grandmother on my moms side was from Newfoundland. I have dreamt in Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Greek and Romanian. Last night I dreamt in the Romani language. I have studied all of these languages as a quick hobby, never really delved beyond that, yet I still dream in them fluently.

— Sonja, via the Babbel Blog

I’ve had such random experiences with dreaming in other languages and having other languages be spoken in my dreams. I’ve had dreams entirely in quite a few of my languages, even though I’m only fluent in English and Finnish. However, what I really think is interesting is that I regularly have a character in my dream who speaks a language I’ve NEVER learned! But somehow in my dream I still understand them perfectly well. I have no basis in the real world to be understanding those languages, like Portuguese and Japanese, but in my dreams I understand…

— wondercheekin, via linguaphiles.livejournal.com

Ok. My major is Spanish so I know quite a bit of it. But last night I had a dream in portuguese. How did I know it was portuguese? I guess I just know. If I look at some writings I can basically tell you what language it is even though have no idea what any of it means. I don’t know where I get this knowledge…but it’s there. Now I know portuguese is very similar to Spanish but this one sentence that was repeated over and over in my dream had no similarity to spanish. I remember seeing the words spelled in my dream. So I woke up, remembered how they were spelled, and I put it into a translator. Esse bom pão. Google said it meant, this good bread. I mean just the fact that it makes somewhat sense just boggles my mind. I have never studied a word of portuguese. Only spanish. The fact that the words were spelled correctly and everything…? I can’t remember what else was said or written in my dream but I remember someone speaking it and I understood everything.

— Sarah, via Street-Smart Language Learning

This has happened to me. A few days ago I awoke with a phrase which, when I googled it, found it to arabic. I am like most English people — lazy when it comes to speaking foreign languages although I know a very small amount of French have no knowledge or experience of Arabic. I have no idea where this came from but I have experienced something even more remarkable. A few years ago I woke early and, although still in a bit of a daze, got up to get a drink. When walking to the kitchen, I started to sing a song in an unknown language and completely in tune! This lasted for about 10-15 seconds and completely baffled me immediately afterwards.

— Stuart, via Street-Smart Language Learning

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