Xenoglossy: the easy way to learn a language

by Paul Meara

Wouldn't it be just wonderful if you could wake up tomorrow morning and speak a language that you had never learned? No more grammar drills, no more vocabulary exercises, no more slogging your way through evening classes and summer courses. Just open your mouth and out comes a language that you didn't know you knew.

Just a dream? Well, no. This phenomenon does indeed happen from time to time. There is even a technical term for it (XENOGLOSSY - the ability to speak in an unknown and unlearned foreign language) and it happens frequently enough for xenoglossy to be a well-studied part of parapsychology.

Swarnalat Mishra was born in India in 1948. At the age of 16, she suddenly started to sing songs in Bengali, even though her L1 was Hindi, and she had never had any exposure to Bengali language or Bengali culture. Swarnalat believed that she had been a Bengali woman in a previous incarnation. This is one of four case studies taken from Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy, and Xenoglossy: a Review and Report of a Case by Ian Stevenson discussed by Paul Meara in TL 40,4 . Each case is meticulously documented, transcripts of the spoken language are included, and every effort had been made to check out the circumstantial evidence contained in them, and to identify the geographical and historical references.

For Stevenson, the sudden appearance of an unfamiliar language "strongly implies the existence of a soul or personality which has inhabited a different body in the past and yet survived the death of that body." An alternative explanation is that, although Stevenson's cases were producing something that was not their L1, and which other people were able to interpret as another language they were not really speaking that language.

Meara concludes that it is hard to evaluate the data without knowing a lot more about the way the transcriptions were made, who made them, how accurate the transcriptions are, and more importantly what assumptions were brought into play before the transcriptions were undertaken. Like most paranormal phenomena, this one will probably yield in the end to a close scientific analysis. In the meantime it is worth speculating on what life would be like for linguists if reincarnation turned out to be true, and if we learned to exploit it as part of a linguist's training.