Foreign language syndrome: the Italian who became “French”

By Neuroskeptic | May 30, 2016 5:30 am

frenchbrain

A curious case report from Italian neuropsychologists Nicoletta Beschin and colleagues: Compulsive foreign language syndrome: a clinical observation not a mystery

The authors describe a 50 year old Italian man, JC, who turned into a ‘caricature’ of a Frenchman after a brain injury caused by a vascular anomaly. JC insisted in speaking French at all times, even though his knowledge of the language was rather poor (he had learned it at school, but not practiced it for decades.) What’s more, JC not only spoke French, he acted stereotypically ‘French’ too: “he speaks it in a fast pace with exaggerated intonation using a movie-like prosody and posing as a typical caricature of a French man.”

He uses French to communicate with everybody who is prepared to listen; he speaks French with his bewildered Italian relatives, with his hospital inmates, with the consultants; he spoke French even in front of the befuddled Committee deciding on his pension scheme. He claims that he cannot but speak in French, he believes that he is thinking in French and he longs to watch French movies (which he never watched before), buys French food, reads French magazines and seldom French books, but he writes only in Italian. He shows no irritation if people do not understand him when he speaks in French.

Along with the French compulsion, JC shows some other behavioural abnormalities, but even these have a Gallic theme:

He presents with some delusions of grandeur, sleep disturbances and has some compulsive behaviours: he buys unnecessarily large quantities of objects (e.g., needing two hangers he bought 70) and he makes tons of bread to his wife’s chagrin. He also shows unjustified euphoria (which he labels joie de vivre): for example in the morning he opens the windows and shouts bonjour stating that it is a wonderful day. He manifests signs of social disinhibition, for example proposing to organise a singing tour for his daughter’s teenage friend or offering French lessons to his neighbours.

Despite this, if pressed, JC could still speak Italian perfectly, with no accent. Beshin et al. conclude that JC’s “compulsion” to speak French is distinct from the so-called foreign accent syndrome, a neurological disorder in which patients continue to speak their usual language but in a foreign accent. JC seems to suffer from a foreign language syndrome. Beshin et al. conclude that

Perhaps… previous, albeit shallow, knowledge of a foreign language, apparently long forgotten, can be switched on by a brain insult and speaking it becomes a compulsive behaviour.

The authors don’t attempt to determine the neural basis of the patient’s strange symptoms.

ResearchBlogging.orgBeschin, N., de Bruin, A., & Della Sala, S. (2016). Compulsive foreign language syndrome: A clinical observation not a mystery Cortex DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2016.04.020

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  • OWilson

    He obviously “self identifies” and presents as a French person.

    Perfectly “normal” unless he starts storming the Bastille, or consuming inappropriate quantities of wine, cheese and garlic.

    • Carey Benom

      “There are lots of men out there who think they are women, and vice versa.” Ok, but “lots” is a key word here. What the article describes is very unusual, so right there is a “big deal”. Gender/Sex issues seem very much more conscious or dependent on one’s psychology than this, which seems subconscious and dependent on neurology more than anything. In any case, language, which is the most sophisticated system ever developed by humans, is also a key to understanding human minds and behavior, so making a “big deal” over extremely rare (and somewhat horrifying) cases like this one makes sense. It could lead to insight into the neurology of language, the neural correlates of identity, etc.

      • OWilson

        I would imagine it has more to do with coomon dissociative identity disorder. Not “horrific” unless there’s evidence of hostility or anti-social behaviour.

        Last century it was a popular theme of social psychology that made it’s way into mainstream entertainmenet is bokks and movies.

        “The Three faces of Eve”, and “Sybil” were notable examples.

        • Unamused

          I’d be horrified if my husband suddenly became a peppy French man one day….just sayin!

          • OWilson

            What if he suddenly developed an alter ego as “Roul, a mysteriously attractive exclusive club bartender by night, and fitness trainer to the stars, by day”

            Just sayin’ :)

          • Unamused

            Hmmmm I think I could work with that lol

      • ohwilleke

        “What the article describes is very unusual, so right there is a “big deal”. Gender/Sex issues seem very much more conscious or dependent on one’s psychology than this, which seems subconscious and dependent on neurology more than anything.”

        Transgender identities are at least as subconscious and dependent upon neurology as what is described here. These identities generally manifest in early childhood and have a frequency on the order of 1 in 500 to 1 in 10,000 people depending upon whose doing to estimating. Surely more common than adult onset foreign language syndrome, but also very rare (much more rare, for example, that homosexuality).

      • Randy

        Not all men who wish to present themselves as women have any desire to BECOME a Woman. I know, as I am 63 and have been ‘Cross Dressing’ since 15 yo. LOVE doing this, and still do. My 2 ex-wives and current GF all know, as do my 3 daughters, 1 step daughter, 2 step sons, my GF’s son and daughter, my older Brother (who also does it!!) and several cousins in an extremely large family, and of course countless friends of my kids/step kids. I don’t care, and nor do any of them, and have only been in public, OFTEN, with my ex-wife and current GF, both of whom just LOVED it. This is NOT neurological folks. It is an appreciation of the beauty of a woman and all they can do with makeup, hair (wigs), body, clothes! It is an incredible experience! But there is NO WAY in hell would I wish to be a woman. There is no job on this planet that comes close to what a woman goes through every single day of their life. What you ‘SEE’ is not EASY to do! A Mother, is the most incredible person the world could ever know and ever has or ever will. Just sayin.

  • Pingback: Foreign language syndrome: the Italian who became “French” – Discover Magazine (blog)Italy News in UK - English Newspaper | Italy News in UK - English Newspaper()

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    ‘caricature’ of a Frenchman” Québécois?

    • bwana

      Particularly when most true Frenchmen can’t even understand a Québécois…

  • Caro

    At least he is Happy!!! Much better than bring a gruntled old foggy. Embrace the Joy of Living! With a large loaf of French bread, obviously. Good thing that the French can make great-tasting bread!

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      True. It sounds like is one of the least unpleasant neurological syndromes.

  • Gern

    I alaways thought being French should be classified as a neurological disorder.
    Does he now cook with butter instead of olive oil?

  • Ivar Ivarson

    I knew it, being French is merely an Italian with brain damage. It explains so much . . .

    • Randy

      I LOVE this comment! HA!!! Maybe so, Ivar, maybe so!!

    • https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9EyIPxyhtsEcLVRezZT9pA Adam Hovey

      I do not know if you are familiar with the Simpsons or not but when Homer was digging up dirt on people some of it obviously false he said that Spanish and Italian are the same language on his website

  • Pingback: La mattina apre le finestre e grida «bonjour!» | Irresistibili()

  • Pingback: Italian man suffers brain damage and now eats, reads and speaks French – The Independent | Disability News | Disability Today()

  • Pingback: After brain injury, Italian man begins speaking 'movie-like' French : GetMints()

  • Erin Bonner

    What an interesting post. It sounds to me like some form of aphasia or cortical rewiring resulted from his vascular anomaly. Who knows, he might even be experiencing the onset of a personality disorder like DID! Either way, I hope he can use that “joie de vivre” to make someones day!

  • Pingback: The Brain and Language: Disorders That Baffle us | BroadyESL()

  • https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9EyIPxyhtsEcLVRezZT9pA Adam Hovey

    I like speaking French too and I’m really bad at it but I know I’m not French and I’m a little confused about the cross dressing but whatever why is that even in the comments? What in the world does that have to do with this? Besides it being the latest political fad

  • Shoshi

    While this may seem humorous to many, it is not. I developed F LS about 4 weeks ago. I am a diabetic. I awoke on the last Sunday of May 2017 with an extreme case of hypoglycemia and passed out twice. When I came to I had a severe headache on the right front and right back of my head. When I tried yo speak, it came out in a fluent mix of languages that I have studied years ago, with perfect accents. I keyed the word “aphasia” into my phone to explain to my family what I thought was happening…and then my bf called 911.

    When first responders arrived and then the medics, they would not believe my mother and be that I am “native” to my hometown area and that my native language is American English with a southern accent. At the hospital they had a nurse come in who speaks three languages and is native to Yugoslavia. She was convinced that I was from Germany or Russia, as I was speaking both, with no American accent and certainly no southern accent.

    A neurologist examined me and a CT SCAN was done and it was determined I had suffered a stroke and the dangerous clot busting TPA drug was administered. Also, my no was 204/104. A drug was given to bring down my no and also to assist with my headache. I was admitted to Intensive Care Unit. After 5 hours, when my BP was reduced, my English language returned and the other left. However, I still struggled, and still do now, with speaking English.

    On Monday morning another Neurologist came in and stated that what I had was not a stroke, but rather a rare form of genetic migraine that usually doesn’t occur until a person reaches late 4ps to mid 50s.

    I am now being treated with an arsenal of medications to treat this. While it’s called a migraine it doesn’t necessarily even cause a headache. I didn’t have what one traditionally thinks of as a migraine headache.

    The neurologist warmed that I could slip permanently into the Foreign Language. I currently slip in and out 2-6 times a day. And every time I have a low blood sugar. When it happens I usually just shut my mouth tight, afraid to speak. It makes me look and sound crazy. It changes my whole demeanor. I don’t look nor sound like the same person. I have no control over what comes out when I speak, and sometimes it’s languages I studied, all mixed up.. While it may sound funny, for those of us who suffer with it, it’s terrible.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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