A recent study, “Selective deficit of second language: a case study of a brain-damaged Arabic-Hebrew bilingual patient” by Raphiq Ibrahim (Behavioral and Brain Functions 2009, 5:17), describes something rather remarkable; in the words of Mo at the neurophilosophy blog:

The study, by Raphiq Ibrahim, a neurologist at the University of Haifa, describes a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew speaker who incurred brain damage following a viral infection. Consequently, the patient experienced severe deficits in one language but not the other. The findings support the view that specific components of a first and second language are represented by different substrates in the brain….
The results support a neurolinguistic model in which the brain of bilinguals contains a semantic system (which represents word meanings) which is common to both languages and which is connected to independent lexical systems (which encode the vocabulary of each language). The findings further suggest that the second language (in this case, Hebrew) is represented by an independent subsystem which does not represent the first language (Arabic) and is more susceptible to brain damage.

Thanks for the link, Trevor!


  1. When I lived in Arizona, we knew a guy that had a stroke and lost all of his English, and had only native Greek left.

  2. I’ve read of various similar studies over the years. The results seem to depend on the exact nature of the brain damage — sometimes it’s the native language that goes, sometimes it’s the languages learned as an adult. (I suppose in this context “adult” means older than about 7).

  3. Bill Walderman says

    Neurolinguists ought to pursue this line of research with experiments, instead of just waiting for someone to show up with interesting deficits.

  4. This is a very interesting finding. I never realized how intricate the brain is in the way it stores information.
    Thank you for helpful info!

  5. I seem to recall a diagram, perhaps from my intro to linguistics text, showing brain regions involved in processing bilinguals’ two languages. The earlier the second language was learned, the more the two areas overlapped. Very cool stuff.
    Unfortunately, I lent that book to someone who has never returned it… so I can’t go back and check. :-/

  6. Bathrobes just wanna have fun says

    CindyL, I’ve found out the hard way that you should never lend books or CDs to people. A good way to lose things you treasure….

  7. Bathrobe100 浴衣50 浴袍15 says

    Another question that comes to mind is the definition of bilingual. Presumably it refers to people with near-native command of two languages, which would rule out poor grunts like me who toiled to master foreign languages after the formative period was well past ….

  8. Bill Walderman, what would you suggest? I’m intrigued.

  9. Bathrobe, I think ‘bilingual’ in its technical sense means anyone with *any* competence in two languages. Or so I assume, having seen conference presenters very carefully specify what kind of bilinguals their participants were: balanced (equal competence in both languages) or English-dominant, for example, early or late, and so on. If I recall correctly, some of the ‘bilinguals’ who were in the low-competence control groups really had little command of the relevant second language at all.
    So the good news is that we poor grunts do qualify! The bad news is that as late bilinguals, we won’t perform as well as early bilinguals on most tests.

  10. That said, I think you’re right about the popular definition.
    Unfortunately the OED isn’t being very helpful today. It seems like these definitions could go either way:
    bilingual, a. As n., one who can speak two languages.
    bilingualism, n. Ability to speak two languages; the habitual use of two languages colloquially

  11. I personally would use “bilingual” only for people with a very high level of competence in the second language. (I would not, for instance, call myself “bilingual,” though I can carry on conversations in several of my languages; when I was living in Argentina I was definitely bilingual, but that was a long time ago.)

  12. Bill Walderman says

    “what would you suggest? I’m intrigued.”
    Trepanning bilinguals.

  13. I also recall (vaguely) a study or studies that showed that “true bilinguals” (ie people who grow up speaking two languages) have the language information (highly technical term) stored differently than people who learn a second or third language. This was connected to the fact that “true bilinguals” are in general worse at simulataneous interpretation than people who learned the second language later. Something about the way the languages could be accessed in the brain.
    A vague posting, but there you have it.I’ll go back to my gruel now.

  14. I believe it. I don’t think my daughter could do simultaneous.

  15. My xhusband used to claim that once as a drunk teenager he could speak fluent Japanese. He had left Japan at age 5 and didn’t remember any of it a an adult.

  16. When I lived in Cambodia, i knew a friend that had lost all of his English, and had only native left Cambodian.

  17. Does anybody think that being left or right handed (as far as how your brain is wired) has anything to do with learning and retaining a 2nd language?

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