One of the most intriguing questions relating to bilingualism is whether a language acquired in very early childhood, and then forgotten, is in fact still present. In the last twenty years, researchers have studied this very question, and have sought to find various types of experimental and neural evidence for remnants of a first language (see here and here).
This work in progress mainly studies perception variables such as identification, discrimination or recognition of speech elements. But what about speech production? Is there a way to help speakers reawaken, or have access to, a forgotten language so that they can actually produce it? This is precisely what three truly fascinating studies that used hypnosis did at various times since the nineteen sixties. The first was done in 1962 by Arvid Ås, the second in 1970 by Erika Fromm, and the third in 2007 by Rosalie Footnick. I will summarize the second study but will also mention the other two.
Professor Erika Fromm, the famous German-American psychologist and co-founder of hypnoanalysis (see here), relates how she met a young Japanese-American graduate student – she called him Don – at the University of Chicago in the late sixties. On her return from Japan where she had learned some Japanese, an assistant of hers asked her to watch a hypnotic training sessions she was giving him. Don had reported that he knew and spoke no Japanese except for a handful of polite words used as a very young child. When Fromm entered the office, he was already in a deep trance, age-regressed to 7 years old, which means that he had been mentally taken back in time to that age. Fromm asked him a few questions in Japanese but he did not seem to understand. As she wrote in her article: “None of them seemed to strike a spark”.
A few months later, in front of observers, Fromm hypnotized Don herself this time. She age-regressed him to 8 years old and they spoke in English. Then, she told him to close his eyes again and to go back further in time, to age 3. Here is what happened according to Fromm: “For a few moments there was silence. Then, suddenly, in a high-pitched child’s voice, Don broke into a stream of rapid Japanese. … He talked on and on in Japanese for about 15 to 20 minutes. He seemed to want to involve me in his Japanese talk, and so again I used any Japanese words I knew…. I was more than surprised at his flood of Japanese.” Afterwards, Don was astonished to hear that apparently fluent Japanese had spurted forth from his lips.
Four months later, Fromm once again age-regressed Don during a psychotherapy session, and tape recorded him this time. When he reached age 3, Fromm triggered his Japanese with a homophone (English “hi” and Japanese “hai” meaning “yes”) and Don switched over to Japanese and talked happily and excitedly about a puppy he had. Fromm writes, “Apparently he had just received it. He said, ‘Thank you, Mother, thank you, Mother,’ and asked what the puppy’s name was. Over and over he happily reiterated, ‘It’s mine, it’s my dog, it’s mine.'”
When he awoke, he said: “It was like my lips all of a sudden would move into these funny shapes. And then I would want to say something and wouldn’t know what I was really saying. The words just came out and I wasn’t sure whether they were real or not.” He listened to the tape and he said that he understood a part of the recording, but by no means all. In the weeks that followed, Don regained progressively more knowledge of his forgotten language.
After each session, Erika Fromm had asked Don about his past and this allowed her to reconstruct his childhood. He was born in San Jose, California, five days before Pearl Harbor, and in 1942 his parents and he were put into a relocation camp. At that time he had spoken Japanese as well as English to his parents. After the war, they had moved to Utah and there he had had trouble communicating with kids on the street so his parents had stopped talking Japanese to him. English became the only language he spoke as of age 4, in and out of the house.
Through lack of use, Don had partly forgotten Japanese. But according to Fromm there was also a repression factor at work. He had had a strong desire to be considered fully American upon leaving the relocation camp. Unconsciously, he must have felt at some point that he could better attain his goal if he knew no Japanese and spoke only English.
Is repression of a language always required for it to be recovered during hypnosis? It does not seem to be the case if one examines another case study. Arvid Ås reports on an 18-year old freshman at Stanford University who had spoken Swedish in Finland in his early years. Then, following his emigration to the United States with his mother, and her remarriages, Swedish was no longer spoken in the home. He was about eight years old at the time and from then on, he simply didn’t use it since he didn’t need it.
When Ås met him and had hypnotic sessions with him, the young man maintained that he had forgotten Swedish entirely except for a couple of words. And yet, when he was age-regressed to first grade, he showed that he still remembered a good deal of Swedish. He also showed clear improvement in a Swedish language test given to him before and after hypnosis.
The third case study reported in the literature, that of Rosalie Footnick in France, simply replicated and confirmed the results obtained by Fromm and Ås. It would appear therefore that a ‘lost’ language can indeed be recovered under hypnosis. A word of caution is needed though: studies that have produced negative results probably exist but have not been published. In addition, some people are not easily hypnotized, and age-regression may not be used in all situations.
This said, and on a more personal note, were I younger, I’d love for someone to age-regress me to ten years old and record me speaking Italian. I have always regretted having lost this beautiful language I spoke quite fluently as a child!