Speech researcher Swathi Kiran of Boston University works with bilingual stroke victims to help them relearn words lost to aphasia. As reported in Scientific American Mind, she found that these recovering patients improve faster if they start with the hardest stuff first.
“She has found that when patients practice the language they speak less fluently, their vocabulary grows in both languages. But when the patients study words in the language they are more comfortable in, only that language improves.
“[She and her colleagues] found that training patients in their weaker language results in transference to the stronger language. Something about thinking in the weaker language automatically helps the stronger language, because they have to do some kind of translation to make sense.”
Researchers show pictures which patients then must name. They’ve found that naming pictures of “pumpkins” and “garlic” helps aphasia victims do better naming carrots and tomatoes.
So while monolinguals forge connections between related words, bilinguals recover similar words (meaning the same word in different languages) based on similar neural patterns.
It’s estimated that there are 45,000 new cases of bilingual aphasia in the US every year. Recovery is affected by the number of languages spoken, the order in which they were learned, and how well and frequently each language was used before the stroke occurred. The type and severity of the aphasia, as well as the patient’s levels of education and literacy, also influence how well a bilingual aphasiac will do over the course of treatment.
Last year, Clair Penn and her team reported evidence that bilingual aphasiacs do recover more quickly and completely.
“Significant differences were found between the scores of the bilingual participants and those of the monolingual participants on measures of behavioural inhibition, working memory, planning and problem solving, and reconstitution. The bilingual participants’ scores were mostly within normal limits and suggested well-retained executive functions. Conversation analysis showed evidence of differential application of these executive functions to conversational management. Regardless of severity or type of aphasia, the bilingual participants showed evidence of good topic management, repair, and flexibility compared to the monolingual participants.”
So bilinguals have a linguistic leg-up when it comes to stroke recovery.