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Sheila Hale

The Man Who Lost His Language

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2003).

John Hale was an eminent art historian, the author of numerous books, who was active in public life in many capacities connected with art collections and museums. In 1992, when he was 69, he suffered a stroke which left him unable to walk and deprived him of language. This exceptionally articulate man was abruptly reduced to being unable to say anything except "da whoas, da whoas". His wife Sheila then began a long struggle to restore him as far as possible to normality.

Initially her experience of the National Health Service was profoundly discouraging. The consultant in charge of her husband told her that nothing could be done and she should put him in a home. Rejecting this advice, she sought help wherever she could find it and under the care of a more sympathetic consultant John recovered the ability to walk. But could still not talk, so Sheila began to look for speech therapists who might be able to help. She soon found out that there is a huge range of ideas about speech disorders and how to treat them, and indeed much uncertainty exists about even the feasibility of treating them effectively. She therefore set about turning herself into an expert on the subject, reading everything she could find about it and interviewing neurologists and language researchers to discover the latest ideas. Her experience as a journalist was helpful to her in this undertaking.

The book therefore has a number of facets. It is, first and foremost, a moving tribute to her husband—a love letter, in fact, as Sheila describes it. It is also an account of the long attempt to find a cure for his aphasia, and it is a detailed and sometimes quite technical description of our present state of knowledge, or ignorance, about how the brain produces speech. Finally, it is also in part a bitter criticism of the inadequacy of the provision for stroke victims in the National Health Service. (Penguin will donate 50p for each book sold to The Stroke Association, the country's leading charity for stroke sufferers.)

Some people have recovered from aphasia and have given us accounts of their experiences, and Sheila Hale quotes from these. Sadly, John never recovered his speech, although he did eventually acquire the ability to write short letters. But although he was confined to uttering "da whoas", he had a remarkable degree of histrionic ability and was able to take part in conversations with his friends with vivid evocations of mood. Indeed, in some ways, it seems, he could do this now even more effectively and dramatically than before his stroke. Curiously, however, although his intelligence remained very high he seemed unable to grasp fully the fact that people could not understand him. This is just one of the many paradoxes that aphasia confronts us with.

Probably the dominant idea that one takes away from this book is of the extraordinary subtlety and complexity of language. Speaking is something that nearly everyone takes for granted, but there are so many ways in which it can go wrong, some of which are bizarre almost beyond belief. How can one explain, for example, a case cited by Sheila in which a speaker of normal English was transformed by a stroke into someone speaking with a strong French accent that even native French people found to be entirely authentic? (There have been other cases of this strange phenomenon: one woman, for example, acquired a strong Scottish accent.) And why do some people recover their speech after losing it while others do not? We still know very little about these things.

The book also raises a deep philosophical question: is language necessary for rational thought? This has often been claimed, yet there is much evidence to the contrary. It does seem possible to think without words. Sheila believes that John lacked the "inner voice" after his stroke yet he remained capable of subtle thought. It is even possible that our ability to speak actually places limits on how we think. As the poet Robert Graves wrote: "There's a cool web of language winds us in." The loss of language is a disaster, yet people who have recovered from aphasia do say that they learned much from the experience.

John died seven years after his stroke, but those years were, it seems, very much worth having both for himself and for his family and friends. Sheila certainly conveys this, but it is clear that his ability to continue to enrich the lives of those about him was due in no small measure to Sheila herself.

%T The man who lost his language
%A Hale, Sheila
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-297-64301-0
%P x + 306 pp
%K biography
%O paperback
%O notes and bibliography
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