There were concerns that bilingualism could detrimentally affect recovery from sufferers of aphasia – a language disability resulting from brain damage which renders the person unable to understand or produce speech. The fears were that bilingualism would hinder the recovery process by confusing the brain with two conflicting and disrupted languages.

However, research has shown that stimulating the training of the less dominant language, as opposed to stimulating the strongest language learned, considerably increases the chances for recovery of speech and language recollection of both languages.

The cross-linguistic effects are also more pronounced where similar words with similar meanings in both languages are targeted. For example, concentrating on the word ‘table’ in French will help with the recovery of the word ‘table’ in English. These types of words as known as ‘cognates’. Similar sounding words that do not have the same meaning are called ‘non-cognates’ but stimulating these can actually be confusing for a bilingual person suffering from aphasia.

Stressing the meaning of words also helps to enhance the retrieval ability of the corresponding words from the untreated language. For example, ‘dog’ can be associated with ‘bark’ and ‘pet’. The equivalent word for dog in French, ‘chien’, is then much easier for the person to retrieve from their memory than it would be if they simply repeated the word ‘dog’.

In previous years, aphasia in bilingual people resulted in the patients having to suppress one of their languages and purely focus on one. As this research now highlights the benefits of cross-linguistic effects in language therapy this is good news for bilinguals, particularly as bilingualism is increasing in the population as a whole.

Do you know anyone who has suffered from aphasia? How did they overcome their language impairment?