Concussion and Language Change

The story of Reuben Nsemoh, the teenager in Georgia, USA, who received a blow on the head and woke up speaking Spanish, reminded me of a similar, though less severe, trauma that I experienced in the mid-1970s in Ghana, West Africa. Reuben was playing football and as a goalkeeper he was kicked on the head as he dived for the ball. My own experience occurred while horse riding, when my mount slipped on dry grass while rounding a tight right turn at a canter, and fell, pitching me onto the left side of my head. Reuben woke up speaking Spanish, and I was reported to have spoken only the local African language, Twi, through hours during which I suffered complete memory loss.

Reuben’s concussion was much more severe than mine. The direct blow to the head caused seizures and three days in hospital in coma. I was wearing a riding hat which provided a degree of protection. Able to remount, I rode back to the stables where my family observed strange behaviour and took me to hospital. The next twelve hours are for me a total blank and I must rely on the testimony of my wife and sons for what transpired.

Apparently, it was soon realised that I was speaking only the local language known as Twi, so my wife asked a Ghanaian friend to accompany us to the hospital to serve as interpreter. It seems that I kept repeating that I was riding a horse and fell off. It was soon realised that I was suffering from concussion and I was admitted to a ward where I woke up in bed the next morning.

Then transpired a most curious episode. I awoke like a new-born baby with my mind a complete blank. I struggled to recall who I was and how I came to be here. I began to reconstruct my memory from the beginning. After a while I found a note on a bedside table. It had been left by my wife who had wisely anticipated my problem. It told me who I was, where I was, and how I came to be there. Later, she arrived in person to complete the cure, and I was allowed to leave hospital.

Reuben was reported to be an English speaker who had not spoken Spanish before his accident. However, the same media reports tell us that he had some Spanish speaking friends who had tried to teach him their language and Reuben’s own brother speaks Spanish. My own experience was similar in that I was immersed in a community of Twi speakers and had been studying Twi with a group of friends, although at that time I had not progressed far. We are told that the left side of the brain controls speech and any damage in this area can have curious consequences. One hopes that Reuben will retain his fluency in Spanish but suffer no other permanent effects from his trauma.

John Powell

John Powell weaves a tale of romance, tension and intrigue into the lives and loves of Kwame Mainu and his family and friends, against the rich social, cultural, economic and political background of the first four decades of Ghana’s independence, in his two novels: The Colonial Gentleman’s Son and Return to the Garden City.

He is also the author of the humorous children’s book Saint George: Rusty Knight and Monster Tamer.

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