Ask Your Question

Language & Dimentia

asked 2015-03-19 14:46:43 -0500

anonymous user


My grandmother was a very talented linguist. I'm aware of at least 5 languages that she regularly spoke with various friends, neighbors and caretakers. By the end of her life, she also acquired dementia. This was of course heartbreaking to watch, but allowed me to view something that continues to fascinate me.

How is it possible that she wouldn't seem to have any idea who an individual was, even if it was someone very close to her, yet she ALWAYS addressed that person in the language that they traditionally spoke to one another? I know the obvious answer is that it's based on cues of how that individual addressed her, but it's beyond that. For example, I've been at the dinner table with people representing all five languages. She lived in Israel so Hebrew was usually the default, but she would still individually address people in their native language; even if she was asking her own sons or grandchildren to remind her of their names, she always seemed to do so in the correct language! How can this be?


(Transferred from old LINGUIST List Ask-a-Linguist site)

edit retag flag offensive close merge delete

1 answer

Sort by ยป oldest newest most voted

answered 2015-03-19 14:49:07 -0500

anonymous gravatar image

It's sad, but also fascinating, to see the pattern of deterioration in dementia. In this case there is a social as well as a linguistic issue. Many people maintain an politeness patterns well into dementia. They continue to greet people appropriately, thank them, and go through all the movements of chatting, even when they don't recognise their close relatives.

One factor here might be that her choice of language was closely linked to the basics of interpersonal action that choosing the right language was as automatic as saying 'hello' and 'goodbye'.

Someone somewhere must have studied it, but probably doctors rather than linguists.

Anthea Fraser Gupta

Hi, Talia,

I think Dr. Pyatt answered your question with the basics. It could be the case, however, that the dementia took away some parts of the brain but not others (what is known about the etiology of dementia, I think permits us to advance this as a possibility), specifically affecting in your grandmother's case the naming function before (or: and not) the 'language to use with X' function. We are constantly learning more about the brain, but as you can see, there are still many things we do not know.

Incidentally, there are aphasias (usually due to a cerebral stroke or other physical damage to (sometimes very isolated and specific) brain areas) which have similar symptoms to what your grandmother had. We have some ideas and clues as to what the causes are in some cases, but even so, careful researchers are loath to advance hard and fast 'reasons' even in the best-understood and clearest-cut cases. It has been amply shown, however, that even apparently unified functions in many cases are linked to various areas of the brain, even, for example, clearly lexical matters such as stress, intonation (eg in discourse markers) and specific language; but this is also the case in a number of very grammatical situations, such as inflectional irregularities.

Hope this helps.


James L. Fidelholtz Graduate Program in Language Sciences Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades Benem'erita Universidad Aut'onoma de Puebla, M'EXICO

I don't have a specific answer, but research has shown that memories are not stored in one place or in the same way. They can be split up into different types of information stored in different parts of the brain.

There are many studies of people with different types of head injuries who may lose one kind of memory but retain another. In some cases, the information may be available "subconsciously" even if a person cannot consciously recite the information.

It's appears that your grandmother lost access to who specific people are (or even just their name), but somehow retains information on which language to use with that person.

I can also tell you from personal experience that I can recognize people's faces and many contextual pieces of information, but may not be able to recall a specific name. An example may be "That villain in Star Wars ...

edit flag offensive delete link more
Login/Signup to Answer

Question Tools

1 follower


Asked: 2015-03-19 14:46:43 -0500

Seen: 477 times

Last updated: Mar 19 '15