In October, I went to German class expecting to go over some concept from the previous day’s class. But instead, the teacher told us to read an interesting article she found.
This was nothing new – Frau Sos has had us read articles in her class before – but I kept wondering what it could be about.
I soon learned about one woman’s experience in which she lost her ability to speak English after a bicycle crash. Hannah Jenkins was biking and crashed with one other cycler. After waking up in the hospital, she was unable to understand anyone who spoke English to her. It was as though she had forgotten how to speak English entirely and her English skills were replaced with German.
The reason for this lies in her background. Hannah’s parents are both polyglots; her mother spoke four languages and her father spoke seven. Since she grew up speaking German, Hannah’s brain reverted back to that as her main language of communication instead of English.
She told BBC, “I felt as though I’d woken up in a foreign country and I couldn’t understand why people weren’t speaking to me in a way that I could understand.”
After some time, she thought she remembered the words “date of birth” and “name.” Anybody that went near Hannah would hear her say those words over and over again.
According to Hannah, the doctors had no idea she could speak German until she talked on the phone with her sister. While calling her sister, Margaret, Hannah asked her why the doctors were not talking with her in English. It wasn’t until her sister confirmed that they were speaking English that Hannah realized something was wrong.
One quote from Hannah stood out in particular: “I’m fine in the mornings, but by the afternoon the fatigue really kicks in, and I switch [back] to thinking in German.”
When Hannah returned home, she attempted to listen to the radio. One of her first communication challenges was talking with her boyfriend Andrew. The two of them have been in a relationship for eight years, but the German that Andrew had learned in school only helped so much.
Now, three years later, English is Hannah’s second language, as her ability to speak the language is still a work in progress.
How Hannah lost her ability to speak English can be explained through linguistics.
Language attrition occurs when a person loses their ability to speak their first (or native) language. It can happen in different ways, which includes isolation over an extended time period, brain injuries, and more exposure to a second language. More information about this topic can be found at languageattrition.org.
Hannah’s story, and the stories of others who have suffered from such a problem, are a reminder to cherish the language(s) that we speak. For all we know, we could lose them in an instant tomorrow.
Photo from languageattrition.org