Thursday, March 20, 2008


This is an odd word I ran across the other day. Etymologically, it means foreign tongue, or the speaking of a foreign tongue. But it seems to go beyond that to speaking a language you haven't actually learned. The context I ran across it in was a claim that past life regression must be true because people under hypnosis started speaking in a language they didn't know so must have known in a past life. I think a comparable context would be the person who wakes from a coma speaking in a different language. (The Omniglot had a story about this a few months ago, but I haven't been able to find the link. Update: It's here. Thanks to Thomas at Babelhut for the link.)

In both cases, I'm pretty skeptical. There usually don't seem to be any linguists on hand for these things, and while that's understandable enough - it's not like people keep a linguist on staff in case these things pop up - it still leaves the question of whether there's anyone on hand who can seriously evaluate the case. Linguists listening to recordings of people speaking in tongues, for example, don't usually find anything in the way of linguistic structure - it's just random sounds. I suspect that we're seeing the same thing with past life regressions and xenoglossic accident victims: not speech, per se, but random sounds or, at most, learned but almost forgotten words from a language encountered long ago.

In a way, it's a shame. It would be very nice if, in our efforts to decipher Babylonian texts for example, we could just regress people till we found someone who used to be a Babylonian scribe. But it's more likely that regressions just stir up jumbled input and the brain makes it into a past life for want of a better way of interpreting it, just as speaking in tongues appears to involve a jumble of misfires in the speech system in a state of excitation, not a conduit between this world and forces beyond.

This does all raise an interesting question for the polyglot, however. When we talk of someone who's had a life-changing event - a serious accident or illness, a near-death experience or a religious conversion, for example - those closest to them will note that they're looking at a whole new person. For those who get swept up in it, learning a new language - and how to use it appropriately within a new culture - go through a life-changing experience of their own. So maybe the distance between the exotic xenoglossy and the sort language learners go through isn't so great. In fact, since our xenoglossy involves a concentrated and deliberate effort to open doors to new worlds, maybe it's all the more extraordinary.

In Foucault's Pendulum,, there's a character, Diotallevi, who was not raised Jewish but was convinced of his Jewish roots and so spied on Jewish neighbors and imagined himself a part of their world on Jewish holidays. That's where the most dedicated language learners seem to wind up - on the outside but trying to get into that life that others lead but that isn't, at least yet, theirs. So while the stories of xenoglossy fascinate, and the promises of "learn in ten days!" thrill, the dedicated language learner should remember that learning a language isn't just about picking up some words and making some sounds; it's about growing into a mindset and mentality where a new language has personal meaning for you as something that you live.


Anonymous Thomas ( said...

The Omniglot post you are referring to may be here:

It's about a man who had a motorcycle accident and woke up speaking fluent English. Then a few days later it was gone and he had no memory of it.

5:44 AM  
Blogger gbarto said...

That's the one. Thanks!

11:57 PM  
Anonymous Jeffrey Hayes said...

The only problem with the case where the 17 year-old Czech speedway racer that woke up speaking perfect English was that he had some exposure to English before...and had some knowledge of English phrases. However, the definition of xenoglossy suggests that the language could not have been learned naturally. It could be that these people perhaps dig deep into a past moment where they heard a song in that language or just begin reciting some previously-learned expressions from memory, but as you say, this foray into multilingualism is short-lived and often brought on by "a state of excitation."

This all makes me think of when Neo (in "The Matrix") was hooked up to some sophisticated computer and was programmed to learn many forms of martial arts instantly.

Still, while it would be great to wake up one day after a hypnotic spell speaking a new language naturally, it is very satisfying to go through the challenges and struggles of language acquisition.

8:14 AM  

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