Girl Loses Native Language After Coma, Picks up German

Croatian girl reportedly woke from coma unable to speak her native language.

ByABC News
April 16, 2010, 1:32 PM

Apr. 22, 2010— -- A Croatian teenager awoke from a coma last week to find she could no longer speak in her native Croatian -- but was fluent in German, a language she had just started studying in school, the U.K. press reports.

Following a mysterious 24-hour coma, the thirteen-year-old girl from the southern town of Knin has been able to understand Croatian, according to the U.K. press. She can only respond in German and requires a translator to communicate with her family, the stories said.

Dujomir Marasovic, director of Firule Hospital in Split where the girl is being treated, declined to provide further details about the girl's case, saying he wishes to protect her privacy.

Though doctors say it's unlikely that the girl's German actually improved because of the coma, instances of lost language and bizarre changes in speech are more common than one may think.

ABC News asked neurologists and language experts to weigh in on these kinds of remarkable language phenomena.

Not a Native Speaker

One such rare but well-documented speech condition is known as Foreign Accent Syndrome. Those with this disorder will often be unable to speak after suffering a stroke or other brain trauma and when their voices return, they will sound as if they have a foreign accent.

Their new accent may sound French, Chinese, Slavic, or any number of nationalities -- but their new sound is not truly an accent.

This condition is "actually a speech impairment that makes them sound 'foreign,'" says Toronto-based speech-language pathologist Regina Jokel, though often the "origin" of the accent is in the ear of the listener.

It's not a newly-acquired accent, but a disturbance in the patient's ability to form words, says Dr. Gregory O'Shanick, president and medical director of the Center for Neurorehabilitation Services in Virginia.

The case of the Croatian teen is a bit more puzzling, however, because she has reportedly swapped languages. Though her condition remains unexplained, experts say her injury may have something to do with damage to the language production centers of the brain.