Saturday, April 17, 2010


The Tower of Babel (1563) by Peter Breughel the Elder. The story of the Tower of Babel is told in the 1st book of the Bible. After the flood, generations of people who all spoke the same language migrated from the east and participated in the construction of a tower so massive it would reach the heavens. Not meant to glorify God, but instead to celebrate their own glory, the Lord confused their languages and scattered the people throughout the earth: "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."

Learning a language other than your native tongue usually takes a concerted effort, although a second language is thought to be easier to acquire before the age of puberty. You may have heard in the recent weird news about the 13-year-old Croatian girl who woke up from a 24-hour coma speaking fluent German. This strange case is not unprecedented. A 26-year-old British woman awoke from a 2-month coma in 2007 speaking fluent Spanish and an 18-year-old Czech motorcyclist who lost consciousness for 45 minute in 2007 awoke speaking perfect English. Profound examples of what is termed xenoglossia are considered by some parapsychologists to be evidence of reincarnation, and by some Christians to be occurrences of glossolalia - the Biblical "speaking in tongues" that miraculously happened at the Pentecost. The paranormal phenomenon has not been widely studied by scientists and, although it has been documented, it is generally not accepted by linguists or psychologists.

There are also instances of patients - even before they speak in their own tongue - talking in a language they learned years earlier. A 56-year-old Londoner spoke in Farsi upon waking from a month-long coma, and the 1st words that 44-year-old American journalist Bob Woodruff spoke after emerging from his 36-day medically-induced coma were in Chinese. This is attributed to the brain finding alternate ways to process information after injury. Yet another related phenomenon, foreign accent syndrome, is a known medical condition that results from brain injury. Patients who present with the syndrome speak in their native language, but sound as if they are pronouncing it like a non-native speaker. Foreign language sydrome is rare (there have only been 60 cases described since 1941) and is attributed to distorted speech patterns as a result of damage to the cerebellum. Imagine your puzzlement, however, when your American friend starts speaking English with a German accent!

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