Thursday, July 22, 2010

What Aphasia Tells Us

When something goes wrong, the malfunction may give us an insight into how it goes right. Most of what I know about the workings of our car, I learnt to my cost when it went wrong. Seriously, though, we can learn something about language from people’s inability to speak normally under certain conditions. One such condition is aphasia, inability to produce or understand speech due to brain damage. The damage may have been caused by an external agent of ‘insult’ such as an accident or an operation, or internally by a stroke for example.

In the last post, I quoted Michel Paradis (see photo), one of the few neurolinguists who have studied the effects of aphasia on bilinguals, and indeed one of the few writers on bilingualism to have given importance to translation. All the subjects he describes are Native or Natural Translators with no training; he never questions that it’s normal for them to be able to translate. It’s now a year – time zooms! – since I devoted part of a post (July 31, 2009) to his description of a bilingual Moroccan woman, French and Arabic speaking, who suffered from an unusual kind of aphasia that affected her translation ability in surprising ways. Here’s another example from his casebook.
A 23-year-old Montreal patient spoke fluent French as his mother tongue and English as his working language. He had learned the latter early, even before going to school. Following an operation, his recovery of his two languages followed a progression similar to that of the Moroccan patient. For the first week after the operation, he could only speak English; so complete was the imbalance that his father had to act as his interpreter when he wanted to communicate with his monolingual French-speaking wife. In the second week, he had recovered his use of French but could no longer express himself in English. During the third week, he was given our translation test; at that stage his English was getting better but his French was still superior. He translated correctly and with no hesitation the six sentences of French (his stronger language) into English (his weaker one) but was incapable of translating the sentences from English (which he understood perfectly) to French (which he could speak very fluently).
(Notice, in passing, that the patient was helped out by another Natural or Native Translator, his father.)

On their own, individual cases like the above might seem mere curiosities. But their continual occurrence over time – Paradis’ earliest reference dates from 1887 and the famous French surgeon Charcot – in both sexes, in different languages and in different parts of the world makes them more than anecdotal. What I find most significant about them is that the ability to translate varies independently of the other components of bilingualism and even inconsistently with them. This suggests that besides the two language components, there’s a module, system, unit, structure, network – call it what you will – that activates specifically for translating and possesses a certain autonomy. Normally it’s so closely integrated with the two language components that we don’t notice it; but aphasia can open up a chink. The way this dissociation coincides with brain lesions suggests furthermore that it has a neurological basis or host or analogue. Perhaps brain scans will tell us more some day. By analogy with another term that’s a buzzword nowadays for a mysterious component, I’m tempted to dub it the translation particle.

Michel Paradis. Aphasie et traduction. Meta (Montreal), 29:1.57-67, 1984. Available online at (The English translation of the quotation is mine.)

Photo: Centre de Neurosciences de la Cognition, UQAM

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