After a bicycling accident caused a head injury, Hannah Jenkins had to relearn a language she once knew fluently. (Photo courtesy of Language Attrition)
La Cañada High School

Woman woke up and couldn’t speak English

Hannah Jenkins lost her ability to speak English after a bicycle crash, according to BBC. After waking up in the hospital, she was unable to understand anyone who spoke English to her. It was as though she had forgotten how to speak English entirely and her English skills were replaced with German, BBC reported.

The reason for this lies in her background. Jenkins’ parents are both polyglots — her mother spoke four languages and her father spoke seven, according to BBC. Since she grew up speaking German, Jenkins’ brain reverted back to that as her main language of communication instead of English, BBC reported.

“I felt as though I’d woken up in a foreign country and I couldn’t understand why people weren’t speaking to me in a way that I could understand,” she told BBC.

After some time, she thought she remembered the words “date of birth” and “name,” and anybody that went near Jenkins would hear her say those words over and over again, according to BBC.

Jenkins told BBC that the doctors had no idea she could speak German until she talked on the phone with her sister. While calling her sister, Jenkins asked her why the doctors were not talking with her in English. It wasn’t until her sister confirmed that they were speaking English that she realized something was wrong.

“I’m fine in the mornings, but by the afternoon the fatigue really kicks in, and I switch [back] to thinking in German,” Jenkins told BBC.

When Jenkins returned home, she attempted to listen to the radio, according to BBC.

One of her first communication challenges was talking with her boyfriend of eight years, according to BBC. They only ever spoke in English, and the German that Andrew had learned in school only helped so much, BBC reported.

Now, three years later, English is Jenkins’ second language, as her ability to speak the language is still a work in progress, according to BBC.

How she lost her ability to speak English can be explained through linguistics.

Language attrition occurs when a person loses their ability to speak their first (or native) language. It can happen in different ways, which includes isolation over an extended time period, brain injuries, and more exposure to a second language. More information about this topic can be found at languageattrition.org.

Jenkins’ story, and the stories of others who have suffered from such a problem, are a reminder to cherish the language(s) that we speak. For all we know, we could lose them in an instant tomorrow.

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