Ever had the experience of singing song lyrics for years and then, seeing them written down one day, realising that you’ve been saying something similar but not quite right all along? With foreign languages this kind of experience is pretty frequent, especially when it comes to colloquial expressions. You can be using them in the right context, pronouncing the correct sound, and then one day, out of the blue, it will hit you: the expression as it existed inside your mind was something quite different, quite other than the linguistic reality.

Cycling through town yesterday the name of a restaurant caught my eye – an Asian eatery called ‘Ras-le-bol’ – literally a bowl filled to the brim, with an accompanying image to that effect. It was a clever play on words as in French the expression means ‘to be fed up’. And so it dawned on me that the colloquial expression I had been happily using was a 3-word composite with a literal meaning close to ‘to have it up to here with something’.

I had never really questioned it, but it vaguely existed in my mind as a set word, something like ‘ralbolle’, or being pushed at best a conjugation of the verb ‘râler’ (to complain), so ‘râle bol’. Not that this made any sort of sense, but I wasn’t asking it to, like many colloquial expressions, I had assumed its origins obscure, perhaps a result of some sort of Verlan inversion.

Yet this discovery gives the expression a new definition, a new feeling in my mouth, even though I’ll continue using it just as before. Next time I’m fed up with French administration and exclaim ‘j’en ai ras-le-bol!’, in my mind, just for an instant, will appear that faint image of a bowl, brim-full of frustration.


The President’s Speech

I have finally got round to reading “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks, a fascinating book of anecdotes from a neurologist’s experience of all sorts of brain anomalies. One story in particular involves the comprehension of language and is really worth sharing here in a shortened version, if only to show once again that we really don’t need words to communicate.


The President’s Speech (1985)

What was going on? A roar of laughter from the aphasia ward, just as the President’s speech was coming on, and they had all been so eager to hear the President speaking…

There he was, the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal – and all the patients were convulsed with laughter. Well, not all: some looked bewildered, some looked outraged, one or two looked apprehensive, but most looked amused. The President was, as always, moving – but he was moving them, apparently, mainly to laughter. What could they be thinking? Were they failing to understand him? Or did they, perhaps, understand him all too well?

It was often said of these patients, who though intelligent had the severest receptive or global aphasia, rendering them incapable of understanding words as such, that they none the less understood most of what was said to them. Their friends, their relatives, the nurses who knew them well, could hardly believe, sometimes, that they were aphasic.

This was because, when addressed naturally, they grasped some or most of the meaning. And one does speak ‘naturally’, naturally.

Thus, to demonstrate their aphasia, one had to go to extraordinary lengths, as a neurologist, to speak and behave un-naturally, to remove all the extraverbal cues – tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture): one had to remove all of this (which might involve total concealment of one’s person, and total depersonalisation of one’s voice, even to using a computerised voice synthesiser) in order to reduce speech to pure words, speech totally devoid of what Frege called ‘tone-colour’ (Klangenfarben) or ‘evocation’. With the most sensitive patients, it was only with such a grossly artificial, mechanical speech – somewhat like that of the computers in Star Trek – that one could be wholly sure of their aphasia.

Why all this? Because speech – natural speech – does not consist of words alone, nor (as Hughlings Jackson thought) ‘propositions’ alone. It consists of utterance – an uttering-forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being – the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition. And this was the clue to aphasiacs’ understanding, even when they might be wholly uncomprehending of words as such. For though the words, the verbal constructions, per se, might convey nothing, spoken language is normally suffused with ‘tone’, embedded in an expressiveness which transcends the verbal – and it is precisely this expressiveness, so deep, so various, so complex, so subtle, which is perfectly preserved in aphasia, though understanding of words be destroyed. Preserved – and often more: preternaturally enhanced… 

Thus the feeling I sometimes have – which all of us who work closely with aphasiacs have – that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily…

We recognise this with dogs, and often use them for this purpose – to pick up falsehood, or malice, or equivocal intentions, to tell us who can be trusted, who is integral, who makes sense, when we – so susceptible to words – cannot trust our own instincts.

And what dogs can do here, aphasiacs do too, and at a human and immeasurably superior level. ‘One can lie with the mouth,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘but with the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth.’ To such a grimace, to any falsity or impropriety in bodily appearance or posture, aphasiacs are preternaturally sensitive. And if they cannot see one – this is especially true of our blind aphasiacs – they have an infallible ear for every vocal nuance, the tone, the rhythm, the cadences, the music, the subtlest modulations, inflections, intonations, which can give – or remove – verisimilitude to or from a man’s voice.

In this, then, lies their power of understanding – understanding, without words, what is authentic or inauthentic. Thus it was the grimaces, the histrionisms, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice, which rang false for these wordless but immensely sensitive patients. It was to these (for them) most glaring, even grotesque, incongruities and improprieties that my aphasic patients responded, undeceived and undeceivable by words.

This is why they laughed at the President’s speech.



Foreign Accent Syndrome

Reported in such classy news sources as The Mirror and The Daily Mail this week, the case of an Australian woman who woke up speaking English with a French accent following a car accident. These cases being rare, you generally only get to hear about a new one every couple of years. In fact, there have only been little over 60 cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) ever reported since its discovery in 1941.

To be sure, the news reports are often a bit misleading, and to the average person used to hearing English spoken with a French accent, the Australian case is only a vague approximation. The result of brain injury or stroke affecting an area devoted to language, FAS is in effect a speech impediment, and the people who wake up sounding French, Jamaican or Chinese have pretty much never had any experience of these cultures or languages.

We know relatively little about the functioning of the brain in terms of language production, and it is still appears to be somewhat of a miracle that humans can muster the ability to communicate with language to begin with when no other species even comes close. Cases like these are surely a godsend for neurolinguists exploring the language-producing areas of the brain. It is only when one particular little thing ceases to function that we can identify which part of the brain ceased to function along with it.

Saying that, with FAS the changes in the brain affect pronunciation in a myriad of ways – timing, intonation, control of tongue placement, voicing errors, truncation of words, vowel or consonant distortions, deletions or substitutions and other unusual errors can all be a part of the package. Despite all this, speech remains intelligible, and merely sounds somewhat ‘foreign’ to the casual listener. For the sufferers of FAS however, their social lives are gravely affected, many falling into depression or becoming recluse as a result, and finding it difficult to come to terms with this new voice which they feel deeply alters their identity.

Because cases are so rare, treatment is pretty much non-existent, with the suffers not knowing whether the affliction is temporary or if it will stay with them for the rest of their lives. A few researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have launched a website for those seeking more information about FAS, and even they only mention one example from 2007 of a tentative treatment of FAS on an English-speaker who sounded ‘Swedish’, with no apparent success.



Why bilingual is better

I recently read an article talking about how bilingualism tends to push back the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I looked into it a bit more and it turns out to be quite old news. For the last decade, different research has been showing that those who speak more than one language on a daily basis have increased cognitive function in old age. Specific experiments have looked into the effects of bilingualism on executive control tasks in older people, and the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Multilingual speakers fare better in every case, not to mention that they have also been shown to be better at multitasking at any age.

It’s interesting to see how different news sources report this type of research. You can see for yourself the contrast between the sober article in The Guardian from 2011, going through the experimental results and quoting the researcher, and the overblown claims of NPR from a few months ago, stating inaccurate things like “speaking more than one language could prevent Alzheimer’s” or “save you from Alzheimer’s disease”. It can’t, if it’s in your genes it’s in your genes, but the added brain function of bilinguals can better fight the damage and delay the symptoms. The New York Times opted for this engaging interview with the research professor in Toronto responsible for the latest positive findings.

Of course, all this only works if in old age you are actively speaking more than one language on a more or less daily basis, not if you learned French in school and use it when you go on holiday to Nice once a year. The best thing then is to learn two languages from the start. It was once commonly thought that bilingual babies would somehow get more confused, and the idea of teaching them two languages was frowned upon. Now we realise that monolingualism is the unusual state of affairs in terms of our history. In his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond talks about how most tribes-people learn to speak at least 3-4 languages through necessary interaction with neighbouring people, be it play, trade or marriage.

Coincidentally, Diamond also reviewed some of the academic articles mentioned above for Science and then spoke to the BBC about it all a few years ago. So what advantages do bilingual babies, kids and grown-up kids have? Here are some of the reasons why bilingual is better:

  • more flexibility when dealing with changes of rules  
  • better at focusing in confusing situations 
  • better at processing sounds in noisy environments and tuning in to important information
  • augmented attention, inhibition and encoding of sound
  • better at prioritising tasks and multitasking
  • better at editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important detail
  • better at complex spatial reasoning tasks
  • better at learning phonological patterns in a new language
  • and last but not least, according to the Canadians, bilinguals bring in more income