Implications of Research on Bilingual and Polyglot Aphasia

Implications of Research on Bilingual and Polyglot Aphasia

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Implications of Research on Bilingual and Polyglot Aphasia

Research conducted on bilingual and polyglot aphasics has brought interest into the field of linguistics mainly because of its contribution to L2 research, especially in providing explanations for the organization of distinct languages in the brain. Since there exists such a variation between individual cases, the most important thing to come out of this research is a set of factors involved in these aphasia cases as well as theories emerging from research. Some of these factors include: the language environment in which the aphasic recovers, influence of the L1, language mixing, brain lateralization for language, and the question of whether structurally similar languages follow a similar pattern of deficits and recovery. The main pathological implication—determining what is missing or misplaced inside a bilingual or polyglot aphasic’s brain—also shares importance with determining how different languages are structured in the brain.

The history of research on bilingual aphasia into the 20th century begins with the work of two Frenchmen at the end of the 19th century by the names of Ribot and Pitres. Ribot wrote his paper, Les maladies de la memoire, in 1881 (Lebrun 12). Pitres, using seven polyglot aphasic patients as the basis for his work, published Etude sur l’aphasie des polyglottes in 1895 (Lebrun 11). Ribot’s conclusion about recovery in polyglot aphasics is known as Ribot’s rule, which basically states that L1 will recover more than any L2’s. Pitres’ rule, built off of Ribot’s, takes a different approach in saying that the language used most often “pre-morbidly”(i.e. before the onset of aphasia) is the one which will be regained the fullest, irregardless of that language being an L1 or L2. Various individual cases have cropped up which match both theories, so further research has attempted to explain variances in recovery of specific languages through other means. Also, after Pitres, the research focus became more one of examining deficits in syntax and morphology in an attempt to explain brain construction, and less of an analysis of “interesting language recovery” in these patients.

Examining Theoretical Issues

Another important component of the study of polyglot aphasia came with the distinction between compound and co-ordinate bilingualism, as examined by Lambert and Fillenbaum (1959). Although the state of being a “bilingual” is a hazy one, the distinction between the two concepts comes with the context of acquisition.

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By definition, compound bilinguals acquire their languages in the same context at the same time, whereas co-ordinate bilinguals acquire their languages in different contexts, and probably with a gap of years between acquiring the second language (Albert 229). Within this latter definition is the assumption that L2 is acquired after the “critical period.”

Although one could assume that languages learned in different contexts would produce divergent patterns in aphasia afterwards, a study conducted on two aphasic bilingual Japanese-Korean men found similar deficit patterns between their languages, even though both, as L2 classroom learners, were considered to be co-ordinate bilinguals (Sasanuma 111). The problem with this study was that, although it tried to prove that the languages followed a similar pattern of recovery because they were structurally similar, it only took into account the differing acquisition environments of the two patients studied, instead of delving into syntax or morphology. Therefore, it is inconclusive evidence for the existence of a compound versus a co-ordinate system in the minds of the bilinguals studied.

Conversely, a study done on three aphasic Farsi-English bilinguals provided insight into the arrangement of information in a brain whose L1 and L2 were structurally very different from each other (Nilipour 123). Farsi is an SOV language with variable word order, pre- and well as post-positions, and no gender agreement. The emphasis of each sentence comes in word order, as shown in the examples below (taken from Nilipour 124):

(1) Farsi: ketab ra man xandam
English: The book is what I studied

(2) Farsi: ketab ra xandam man
English: The book is what I studied
(largest emphasis on object)

Additionally, written Farsi reads from right to left, which is the opposite of English. Coming from this divergent syntactic background, one would assume that differences would also exist in syntactic comprehension between the two languages in an aphasic individual.

The three individuals examined in this study were at least bilingual English-Farsi speakers, who all learned their L2(s) in a classroom context. All patients were tested with the BAT (Bilingual Aphasia Test) which has a language-specific equivalent for over 60 different languages (Nilipour 130). The results found that all three had divergent deficits in each language. All patients had trouble with VP in Farsi, but were able to express themselves in more complex sentences. Conversely, although the English structure remained largely intact, the patients’ utterances were not as varied as in Farsi, and among all three, recovery of Farsi overall exceeded that of English or the other L2’s (Nilipour 137).

In analyzing their findings, the researchers for this study concluded that, “…surface manifestations of a same underlying deficit may differ in a bilingual patient’s two languages because of the different opportunities for breakdown offered by each,” (Nilipour 137). In my interpretation, this suggests that divergent deficits in L1 and L2 of bilinguals and polyglots does not necessarily mean that each language is located in a separate part of the brain; instead, it could simply reflect differences in the structure of each language which present their own particular difficulties.

On a purely structural level, research examines the issue of brain-lateralization to see if cases of polyglot aphasia can provide evidence for language centers in areas other than the left hemisphere in polyglots. Some studies have found that right-sided lesions result in differential recovery (Albert 151), which suggests that L2s are organized in a different area of the brain than L1. As one study found, “More right-hemispheric participation is seen in the earlier stages of L2 acquisition,” (Obler 514). A study conducted on 78 unilateral Indian hemiplegics found that 70% who experienced left-brain damage and 55% who experienced trauma to the right brain had aphasia (as cited in Albert 107). This supports the hypothesis that the right brain is involved in L2 processing and acquisition. Another approach to this issue is that fewer cognitive resources are available in general to the bilingual/polyglot aphasic, so they have to conserve, resulting in language deficits, independent of where each language is stored.

Another research question is whether or not there are any significant differences in problems or recovery for bilinguals versus polyglots. Although nothing statistically significant was found in language problems between groups, the researchers did find a higher incidence of non-parallel recovery in polyglots, as well as an initial regression of L1 (Albert 147).

A phenomenon considered unique to bilingual and polyglot aphasics is code-mixing, which is distinct from code-switching in that the mixing occurs unrelated to grammatical constraints. Again, it is believed that this mixing relates to how L1 and subsequent L2’s are organized in the bilingual and polyglot speakers’ brains. There are three types of code mixing that researchers consider when looking at bilingual and polyglot aphasics:

(1) Unexpected Language Switch
(2) Linguistic Interferences
(3) Spontaneous Translation
(Lebrun 16)

Researchers are careful to point out that, in itself, language mixing in normal bilinguals and polyglots is not pathological. What distinguishes these types of mixing from normal, non-damaged bilinguals is that the mixing is not discrete, and doesn’t consider context—especially spontaneous translation. In fact, the phenomenon of spontaneous translation has been found to occur in cases of right-brain damage without aphasia (Lebrun 17).

Two theories have been proposed dealing with bilingual switching and aphasia: a localization theory, and a “general set-switching ability” (Albert 213). The localization theory advocates a specific location for this “switching” taking place, and cites cases of selective recovery (only one language is recovered) as evidence. The other theory basically states that the amount of brain damage is directly related to the language impairment; in other words, the larger the area of damage, the higher the possibility that the individual will have trouble switching, or won’t be able to switch at all.

Analysis of the Issues

When looking at the literature concerned with bilingual and polyglot aphasia, one has to take into account all of the social factors which influence a patient’s cognition. Some of these factors include: higher education, line of work, area in which the patient recovers, etc. More educated people tend to be more self-aware of their language capacity, especially if they acquired their L2(s) for work purposes, etc. The definition of “bilingualism” is, in itself, hazy. Some researchers are very strict about who to call a “bilingual”—excluding those who have limited command of syntax and the conversational register in one of their languages, while others would consider the person who has a working knowledge of Japanese for international business purposes to be bilingual. These discrepancies in definition make it very difficult to create a consistent base to conduct research from.

Another point to keep in mind is that the language process, for all speakers, is multifaceted. For example, writing might be retained for one particular language and not another if was the dominant part of the language known “premorbidly"(such as a man who studied ancient Greek, a woman who only memorized Hebrew for scripture reading and couldn’t comprehend it semantically). The skill of writing might just be stored in another place in the brain. Along similar lines, someone who knows a language with pictorial script may store the written parts of the language as pictures, and not as a normal “language.” Therefore, divergent losses in writing comprehension in, say, a Japanese-English bilingual speaker may have more to do with where English writing and Japanese writing are stored, and less to do with the structures of the languages themselves being different.

Also, aphasia is caused by a variety of incidents, which obviously cannot be controlled for. Sustaining head injuries as a result of a bad car accident could cause other bodily injuries that would complicate the mood of the patient, for one thing. Other possibilities: a tumor, or even a severe migraine headache. In the case of a stroke, since most stroke victims tend to be older, one has to contend with factors of natural aging that could contribute to declines in general cognition, including memory loss.


Since the physical location and nature of brain damage certainly cannot be controlled for among aphasic patients, it is very difficult to find conclusive evidence for any one theory. However, from the cumulative data, it seems to be that while frequency of use plays a role in regaining language intitially, the first language tends to come back stronger, but later. Further research could try to explain cases of multiple aphasias in one patient, or elaborate on the theory of a “switch” for language, but at the present time, the research does not provide any conclusive evidence for any one theory, only trends and possibilities.


Albert, M.L. and Obler, L.K. (1978). The Bilingual Brain: Neuropsychological and Neurolinguistic Aspects of Bilingualism. Academic Press, New York.

Bhatia, T. K. and Ritchie, W.C. (1996). Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Academic Press, San Diego.

Lebrun, Y. (1995). “The Study of Bilingual Aphasia: Pitres’ Legacy.” In M. Paradis, (Ed.). Aspects of Bilingual Aphasia (Pp. 11-21). Pergamon, Great Britain.

Nilipour, R. & Paradis, M. (1995). “Breakdown of Functional Categories in Three Farsi-English Bilingual Aphasic Patients.” In M. Paradis, (Ed.). Aspects of Bilingual Aphasia (Pp. 123-138). Pergamon, Great Britain.

Obler, L.K. & Hannigan, S. (1996). “Neurolinguistics of Second Language Acquisition and Use. Part III: Lateral Dominance for Language in Bilinguals.” In Bhatia, T.K. and Ritchie, W.C. Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp. 513-516). Academic Press, San Diego.

Paradis, Michel, ed. (1995). Aspects of Bilingual Aphasia. Pergamon, Great Britain.

Sasanuma, Sumiko & Park, H.S. (1995). “Patterns of Language Deficits in Two Korean-Japanese Bilingual Aphasic Patients—A Clinical Report.” In M. Paradis, (Ed.). Aspects of Bilingual Aphasia (pp. 111-122). Pergamon, Great Britain.
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