foreign language after coma

According to a  joint study by scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital – The Neuro and McGill University’s Department of Psychology, a new born baby’s brain creates neural patterns (memories) based on the language of it’s birth mother.

This is very interesting in particular for children of international adoption, who do not speak the language of their birth and have no conscious memory of their birth mother’s language, as the unconscious brain retains the neural patterns of the mother tongue.

The study offers the first neural evidence that traces of the “lost” language remain in the brain.

“The infant brain forms representations of language sounds, but we wanted to see whether the brain maintains these representations later in life even if the person is no longer exposed to the language,” says Lara Pierce, a doctoral candidate at McGill University and first author on the paper.

The study looked at three groups of children aged between nine and 17 years old. One group was born and raised unilingual in a French-speaking family. The second group had Chinese-speaking children adopted as infants who later became unilingual French speaking with no conscious recollection of Chinese. The third group were fluently bilingual in Chinese and French. (As the study was based in Montreal, the spoken language is taken as french)

Scans were taken while the three groups listened to the same Chinese language sounds.

The results were surprising as the adopted chinese children who had no conscious memory of chinese had the same brain activation pattern as the children who spoke chinese from birth.

Lara Pierce comments:

“It astounded us that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who ‘lost’ or totally discontinued the language matched the one for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth. The neural representations supporting this pattern could only have been acquired during the first months of life. This pattern completely differed from the first group of unilingual French speakers.”

This raises many questions about how and what the brain remembers. Early-acquired information may be unconsciously influencing brain processing for years, perhaps for life – potentially indicating a special status for information acquired during optimal periods of development.

This could counter arguments not only within the field of language acquisition, but across domains, that neural representations are overwritten or lost from the brain over time.

The implications are far reaching, and open the door for questions relating both to the re-learning of an early acquired, but forgotten, language or skill, as well as the unconscious influence of early experiences on later developmental outcomes.

This may explain the phenomenon of people who have a brain injury and wake up from a coma speaking a different language.

Take Ben McMahon, the Australian man who following a coma induced by car crash, woke up speaking only fluent Mandarin. It took several days for him to be able to speak English again and he didn’t lose the fluency in Mandarin,

His case baffled doctors. However, he had taken Mandarin in high school and had recently been on holiday in Beijing. He says, though he was never fluent and the Chinese language hadn’t really clicked for him.

Somehow the brain injury gave him access to the neural pattern of the language he had learnt in high school. What is even more interesting is that his Mandarin friends say that he suddenly became the “best non-native speaker” his Mandarin pals had ever heard.

This implies that at a deep level the brain is storing the pattern perfectly, even if at the time the student, like Ben, is struggling to speak the language.

Likewise a 13-year-old Croatian girl came out of a 24-hour coma speaking fluent German and unable to speak her native Croatian.

Before her coma she had basic German lessons and had been watching German TV but was not at all fluent.  Unfortunately, although she seems to understand Croatian, her ability to speak Croatian has not returned and she needs an interpreter to communicate with her Croatian speaking family.



McGill University: