I’m reading a book that’s alternately irritating and fascinating, Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich. It’s one of those “I decided to cure my first-world angst by impulsively moving to someplace new where I would be thrown into a completely unfamiliar environment and have to deal with raw authentic life and become a new, more mature person” books, and frankly my interest in the genre is minimal. But in this case the pretext for her moving to Udaipur in India was to learn Hindi, and along with the fairly banal account of what it’s like to learn a new language (“The more Hindi I understand, I find, the more perplexing my life becomes”) she passes along tidbits she picks up from linguists she interviews after her return to New York, and these are often quite interesting. Early on, she cites Michel Paradis, a neurolinguist who specializes in the psycholinguistics of bilingualism, on a couple of striking cases: an Austrian, “once fluent in German and Italian,” who after a head injury “was able to speak to his wife only in the remnants of his Italian, to his doctors only in what was left of his German,” and a Moroccan nun who after an accident “could still speak French and Arabic, but only on alternate days.” This last seemed so unlikely I googled for backup, and found the story with more detail in François Grosjean’s Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism:
In one case a forty-eight-year-old nun in Morocco, who was bilingual in French and dialectal Arabic, had a moped accident and became totally aphasic. Four days after her accident she was able to utter a few words in Arabic but could not speak French, although her comprehension of the language was quite good. However, two weeks later she spoke French quite fluently. One day later, much to the interviewer’s surprise, her French was extremely poor, and her Arabic was once again quite fluent. The next day, the reverse was true: poor, dysfluent Arabic and good spontaneous French. To add to this complex recovery pattern, whenever she had difficulties speaking one language, she had no problems translating into it. However, she could not do the reverse, that is, translate into the language she spoke spontaneously! Thus, her translating ability was completely divorced from her speaking ability.
The brain and language are both amazingly complicated, and I’m glad they’re starting to figure out the connections between them.