In my somewhat desultory studies of linguistics for second-language learners, we spent quite a bit of time talking about native-language acquisition and the varied success second-language learners have both in learning the new language and actually sounding like a native speaker. It is generally the consensus that the older a person is, the more likely they are to have an accent and to have to mentally translate in order to speak in the second language. (The cutoff is around 12 years old for accent-less speaking.) Older learners, with their better study skills, can learn just as well, but they are much more likely to have some degree of accent and to not be able to code-switch as well.
Well, now there is a partial solution, although by no means a controlled result. Evidently, according to two news stories this week, two women have suffered, respectively, a migraine and a coma, and both have different language abilities as a result.
The first woman, a British citizen born in Germany but living in London, had a severe migraine and now speaks with a sort of Chinese accent. There is a video in the news article, and I listened, of course. I didn’t think it was exactly a Chinese accent, but then I haven’t heard a Chinese person speaking British English before either. It definitely reminded me in some places of an Asian accent, but in others it simply sounded like the hyper-correct British English. It is definitely not the normal British accent.
The second woman, actually a Croatian teen, spent 24 hours in a coma. Upon waking, she could no longer speak Croatian, only German. She had been studying German in school but wasn’t fluent at all. Doctors posited that she suffered from bilingual aphasia, a condition that may be reversed when the brain swelling goes down.
These aren’t isolated incidents, as the first article points out towards the end. Others have changed accent or lost a language following some form of brain trauma. Results and treatment vary, of course, and there is no real answer to why the accents change or why someone remembers one language but not another, or if they ever go back to normal.
So there is a way to get that sexy Aussie accent or really cram for that Spanish test. Just get someone to conk you over the head. And if it doesn’t work, well, at least you’ll have a concussion to keep you from taking the test. Can’t help you with the sexy, though.