After having suffered a stroke which was followed by a three-week coma 81-tear-old Englishman Alan Morgan woke up speaking Welsh while being unable to remember a word of English. Mr Morgan's wife Yvonne was the only person who understood Welsh and was able to communicate her husband's needs to the doctors during Mr Morgan's stay in the hospital. Now that Mr Morgan is discharged he slowly starts to re-learn his mother-tongue, while his doctors try to find an explanation for such a rare and unusual condition.
Early last month Alan Morgan, from Bathwick in English Somerset, was rushed to the hospital after being diagnosed with a massive stroke. The damage to his brain was so severe that the man fell into a coma and stayed in this condition for three long weeks. When Mr Morgan opened his eyes for the very first time he realized that no one except his wife Yvonne understood what he was saying. While it was a mystery for Mr Morgan, everyone else in the hospital quickly found out the reason behind doctors' inability to understand the stroke-patient - Mr Morgan was speaking Welsh.
The doctors were astonished by Mr Morgan's case not only because Welsh is rather rarely spoken nowadays, but also because Mrs Morgan claimed that her husband never spoke a word of Welsh before the stroke. For Alan Morgan himself this was a very unusual experience: "I don't remember anything from the time of my stroke. But gradually I started speaking a few words in Welsh. This was strange because I'd not lived in Wales since I was evacuated there during the war." Mr Morgan continues that "it was amazing because I discovered after two or three days, when I was becoming a bit compus mentus, that I was speaking totally Welsh, and only my wife could understand me. Having learned that I was only speaking Welsh, I had to find a way of learning English, so very early on I got myself a good Welsh dictionary, which I kept looking at every now and again to make sure that the words I was using were correct. Gradually, my English is coming back, but it is not easy."
Having learnt that as a child their patient was evacuated to Wales during the Second World War, the doctors started to get an idea about Mr Morgan's condition. Even though Mr Morgan claimed that he never picked up the native tongue during his time in Wales, the man spent four years in his grandmother's house in the area which was enough to gain minimal understanding of Welsh vocabulary and grammar. What makes Mr Morgan's case even more fascinating is the fact that Mr Morgan has spend the remainder of his life in England and has not been exposed to Welsh ever again.
After the massive stroke, Mr Morgan's brain tissue was injured so badly that the language center of the patient's brain was irreversibly damaged. In effect, Mr Morgan's memory of his mother-tongue was suppressed while bringing the man's implicit knowledge of Welsh to the fore. To an extent, the stroke 'unlocked' the abilities that the patient was not even aware of.
This rare condition which causes a shift in the brain's language center is called aphasia and is mostly prevalent among the stroke patients. Nonetheless, brain tumors, gunshot wounds, concussions, and other severe brain injuries can also lead to changes in language coordination center. At present, it is estimated that there are around 220,000 sufferers of aphasia in Britain with only a few new cases each year.
Most scientists now believe that the main reason behind aphasia is a particular 'plasticity' of human brain which enables it to find new ways to fulfill its functions when the brain tissue is severely damaged. In essence, while psychologically difficult, aphasia is a condition which allows one to continue functioning more or less normally after a serious brain trauma. The injured brain of aphasic patients finds new pathways which subsequently unlock latent and previously unexpressed knowledge or memories and allow a person to use them when 'usual' pathways are no longer available due to a severe damage.
Interestingly, Mr Morgan's case represents one particular type of aphasia. Other forms of language center disorder include Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), which causes a sudden change to speech that a native speaker talks with a foreign accent. Ultimately, the result of FAS is often clipping or drawing out the vowels that mimic the accent of a particular country, even if the patient had only limited exposure to that accent. The syndrome was first identified during the Second World War when a Norwegian woman suffered shrapnel damage to her brain and developed a strong German accent. Most recent cases of FAS include a 49-year-old Kay Russell from Gloucestershire who began speaking English with a French accent after having suffering a stroke and a 35-year-old Sarah Colwill from Devon who began speaking with a Chinese accent after concussion.