We all take speaking a language for granted, don’t we? We’re hardwired to communicate verbally and we don’t even notice that we do it almost all the time. Revising for exams? Texting your best friend? Chatting up a girl? Asking your boss for a pay rise? It’s there – the language. It’s indispensable if you need to express your thoughts. It’s something that contributes to our identity and makes us feel comfortable in our communities. And now …. booom! Imagine you can’t say what you want. But no, you’re not an infant who still needs to develop their communication skills. You’re an adult who used to speak fluently and suddenly you can’t. Can you imagine how that might feel?
Surprising as this may sound, this isn’t as uncommon as you may think. People who have experienced a stroke or have had some serious head injuries can suffer from an illness called aphasia which is directly related to speech problems.
WHAT IS APHASIA?
Ok, let’s start with this: our brain needs to shape our thoughts into something verbally coherent and understandable to others. It does this sequentially and in absolute microseconds! And what happens when certain parts of our brain are damaged (e.g., due to injuries or a stroke)? Well, we might not be able to either produce or understand a language. And this is what we call aphasia. There are different types of this illness but I’m going to describe just the main two.
In this type of aphasia people really struggle to string together sentences. They might be able to say two or three words at a time and their range of vocabulary is rather poor. They still have a lot of thoughts which they’d like to verbalise but somehow they can’t find the right words to do it. Imagine you want to tell your friend about the mind-blowing weekend you had a month ago and you want to describe all the tiny details but the only thing that comes to your mind is: ‚weekend,’ ‚nice.’ Sufferers of non-fluent aphasia can understand almost everything that they hear with no affect to their comprehension.
In this type of aphasia people can appear to cope with speaking quite fluently. The problem is that they quite often can’t create coherent utterances and the words they say don’t always make a lot of sense (they can use a lot of nonsense words). They also might find it really difficult to read or write. And to make things even worse, patients with fluent aphasia might be unaware that they are using words in incorrect contexts. They string countless words together seamlessly and there seems to be no problem whatsoever with the fluidity of the utterances. However, their ‘fluent’ word choices have no coherence within the context of the conversation. It can sound like a long strand of randomly chosen words with only some of the words being on topic.
CAN ANYTHING BE DONE TO TREAT APHASIA?
Yes and no. The spectrum of aphasia differs and if somebody suffers from a mild form of aphasia they can improve their communication skills with the help of a speech therapist. In the case of severe forms of the illness the situation is more complicated and the therapy can last longer. Unfortunately, there’s never a 100% guarantee that a person will fully recover but there’s always hope that our brain will be able to develop some new neural connections which could potentially help a lot!
CAN YOU HELP? YES, YOU CAN!
You might be thinking about how you might speak to a person suffering from aphasia. The first thing is – listen carefully and try to summarise what you’ve understood. When you speak, use a lot of body language and gestures. You can even write down the main words. Slow down a bit so that your interlocutor has more time to process new information. Talking to others can be stressful for aphasic people so just try to bear that in mind. 🙂
Speaking a language is a great gift with which we have been blessed. Let’s never take it for granted.