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Language & Dimentia

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)