A teenage boy spent three days in a coma after a severe kick to the head while playing goalie in a soccer match. He then woke up speaking Spanish—seemingly fluently—although his primary language is English. Rueben Nsemoh made global headlines recently for this unusual, but not singular, switch in language function after a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Nsemoh previously learned a few Spanish phrases from teammates and his brother, who studied in Spain. So he heard a lot of the language, but never really spoke it until after the TBI. Most of the numerous news outlets and publications that covered the story attribute the transformation in language function to a rare disorder called foreign accent syndrome.
One of those news outlets was CNN, which previously interviewed Karen Croot about another case of this strange syndrome. A cognitive neuropsychologist in Australia who specializes in spoken language disorders, Croot described the syndrome this way:
“It’s an impairment of motor control. Speech is one of the most complicated things we do, and there are a lot of brain centers involved in coordinating a lot of moving parts. If one or more of them are damaged, that can affect the timing, melody and tension of their speech.”
Another article on Nsemoh—this one from “Science Alert”—goes deeper into his symptoms. For example, as his English returns, he’s losing some of his Spanish. The story compares the syndrome to a type of aphasia and explains how the TBI patient might not actually be fluent in the new language. Instead, the lack of ability to speak their native language means the “new” language becomes their only form of communication, and, therefore, they speak quickly and possibly with an accent.
The article describes these situations as a kind of selective aphasia:
“Usually aphasia would affect all languages a person knows, but it’s possible in these cases that it’s only affecting the patients’ native language—which is allowing them to access parts in a secondary language they didn’t even know they knew.”
This case definitely caught media attention. What do you think? Does the connection as a type of aphasia make sense to you? Share your insights in the comment section below.