Languages and Memory Loss

A friend of mine is bilingual (French mother tongue, English near native).
She has recently fallen gravely ill and was unconscious for some time. They are still not able to give a definitive diagnosis but she’s having petite seizures and is in ICU.

When she awoke, she did not recognise any of us (her English speaking friends) and only seemed to respond to French. She recognised her mum and could respond in French to orders.

She has been asking what happened to her (a friend found her unconscious alone in her flat after 2 days) and cannot believe she lives in Ireland and speaks English. She was doing post doctoral research in science, and seems to have lost all this knowledge, too.

Is it likely she’ll regain English and is it a matter of her regaining her languages in the same order in which she attained them?

What do you know about this?

Educated layman’s perspective here – all caveats apply.

Anahita, do you know how old she was when she gained fluency in English? Languages learned before puberty are pretty well hard-wired into the brain. Languages learned in late childhood or later have a more tenuous position. IIRC, there are even differences in which hemisphere of the brain language info is stored depending upon when the languages were learned.

IANAD, but the seizures suggest to me that the hemispheres of her brain may not be exchanging information as they normally would. This might be the reason your friend cannot recall her English. I stress, however, to speak with the professionals caring for your friend for more authoritative information.

This seems consistent with my limited knowledge. Similar things happen to those whose brain function is impaired by strokes.

Stroke patients can sometimes regain lost abilities. Perhaps your friend’s situation is analogous … then again, perhaps not. Please don’t hesistate to speak with your friend’s doctors about your concerns.

Anahita, I wantd to offer a few resources through which you can get better information.

Ask-A-Linguist at There are experts from every corner of the field of linguistics here. There are folks available who can speak authoritatively on bilingual aphasia.

– The Professionals forum at You can talk to aphasia-treatment professionals here. You can also search the forum for past discussion on your particular areas of interest (bilingual aphasia).

Conversations with Neil’s Brain: The Neural Nature of Thought & Language
(1994) by William H. Calvin and George A. Ojemann. Check and see if your local library (there’s a university near you, right?) has a copy of this book. It is an excellent resource for answering the kind of questions you have.

Thanks for the links and the advice. The English is slowly coming back, as of last night. I’ve yet to see her since it’s come back. Since I would have seen her quite infrequently, it’ll be a real sign of improvement if she recognises me.

I appreciate your help.