Alzheimer's disease · Caregiving · Language

The language instinct? / June 7, 2006

Although my mother’s memory lapses and confusion spells have snuck up on me over several years, I can well remember the first time I heard a language failure. I believe this failure is called aphasia, and we were in the emergency room after a long visit for a scary but non-life-threatening situation. It was actually the second ER visit of the night–right after the first visit she’d fainted and fallen, and I’d rushed her back to the hospital. She had fallen on her rear end, but when she tried to describe the body part she couldn’t come up with the right term so she called it “my sit-down.” As much as I could rationalize even the worst of her confusion (such as getting lost on her way home from the doctor’s office), I had no response to this. It was something a child would say for want of learning the word, but no adult would “forget” it.

A few years ago I read a book called The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, in which he claims that language-learning is directed primarily by instinct rather than culture. Memory, of course, is involved, but here I’m thinking of what might happen when the memory is progressively destroyed. Is there still an active “language instinct” that is losing the refinement it acquired over a lifetime? And can it compensate for the neurological disability in ways we haven’t discovered yet?

Tonight after dinner my mother patted her stomach and said, “I’m going to be adding gallons,” which shows that she knows she’s talking about weight and volume but the precise term is unavailable. My challenge has been to keep myself from withholding the correct word–I still want to make her come up with it, as if that will correct everything. I know now to give her the word she wants as soon as I can figure it out, but it’s still an effort for me.

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