Claude Piron

Languages, the Brain and Public Health:
The Tragedy of Sociogenic Aphasia

(English version revised by Sylvan Zaft and Robert Sterns)

Relating with others is part of being human. One of the most remarkable abilities of human beings is their ability to converse and express themselves in very precise ways. Because the human brain is programmed for language, humans can make themselves understood, and they can understand what they are being told, without even suspecting that a miracle is taking place.

Yet, present day life is full of situations in which individuals who are otherwise healthy and normal are excluded from the fluent exchanges which are a regular part of everyday life. Although their neurons work normally and their thoughts are clear and precise, something stops them from expressing themselves. Their speech is hampered by some clogging factor, by a handicap that interferes with easy communication. They present all the signs that are typical of aphasia. Like all aphasiacs, they try to make up for the lack of language with gestures, facial expressions and poorly articulated utterances whose only effect is to perplex the people they are talking with. This kind of aphasia is a pandemic that affects the entire human race whenever people are trying to make contacts beyond their national or local areas. Consider the following dialogue that took place between a father and his fifteen-year-old son after they overheard a Korean and a Czech struggle to converse in a kind of global broken English.

"How painful it must have been for that poor guy! I pity him. To watch him stammer, stopping all the time to scan his brain, making desperate gestures...! It's as though he was suffering from a disease."

"He was."

"Oh no! You're going too far. You have no idea... And if he actually did, what would his disease be?"

"It's called aphasia, an inability to speak properly. Aphasia can cause a great deal of distress, a lot of anxiety. You know perfectly well what you want to say, but the words just don't come. Your mouth doesn't obey your mind. You can't communicate even a simple idea that is clearly posted on the screen of your mind. You are powerless. You feel stupid, and if you need something really important, you can't get it, or, if you can, it's only after a long session of mental acrobatics which is really painful."

"How do you get such a disease?"

"In the case of somatic aphasia, it's something that goes wrong in your brain: a ruptured vessel, a tumor that presses down on neurons, or something like that. There are also psychogenic aphasias, caused by a psychic trauma, for instance in a kid who's lost the ability to speak after being sexually abused. But mostly, as in the case we just witnessed, the cause is neither physical nor psychological, it's social: we can call it sociogenic aphasia. The Korean guy who evoked your compassion obviously has a brain which works perfectly well, but he hasn't chosen the right treatment to get rid of his disease. Because he was trying to talk to a person with the same disease, a person who had also been using the wrong treatment, they couldn't understand each other."

"What are those treatments?"

"They all belong to the field of curative gymnastics, mental gymnastics as a matter of fact. They're a kind of mental rehabilitation. It's something like reprogramming a computer. You have to input all kinds of software and data into the brain. When everything has been installed, you can converse effortlessly. We all did it without being aware of what was going on, starting when we were sixteen to eighteen months old or so. It was called "learning to speak". At the global level, the public health problem is due to the fact that, for very complex reasons, the programming has been done differently in each particular area. There is no common program. Thus, the cure consists of inserting a program which is valid for all."

"Does it work?"

"Most people don't have the opportunity to get treated. They never have precise exchanges with people from other cultures. Their communication is limited to glances, smiles and gestures. It never goes very far. Among those who attempted the rehabilitation course - there are a great many of them - the aphasia is due to the fact that they've been given the wrong treatment, a masochistic treatment, either because the authorities in their countries have forced it on them, or because they were deceived by fashion, advertising or misinformation."

"What is this masochistic treatment?"

"Usually it's done in school. It demands three, four or five hours a week of mental gymnastics, for five to ten years depending on the country. So, the mental rehabilitation represents altogether between 600 and 2000 hours. But it's not enough. It can result in real improvement, but not in complete recovery. For this you need at least 8000 hours."

"Why do you call that treatment 'masochistic'. Masochism, that's when you do something on purpose to feel pain, isn't it?"

"Yes, but it's also when, without feeling physical pain, you choose a complicated, painful, costly system when another system is available, an alternative system which is simple and doesn't take much time. Why did I call that treatment masochistic? Because the huge number of hours it demands is not necessary. Ninety percent of the effort imposed by this treatment is not required to free the youth from aphasia. Ninety percent of the effort is irrelevant to the goal, which is to be able to communicate."

"How can you be so sure?"

"You can be sure if you compare the masochistic treatment with the sensible treatment in which 100 to 250 hours suffice to ensure recovery. All those guests from countries all around the world that we've had at home - Mitsuko, Vladimir, Jon, Vojciech, Reza, Rosinha, Jiangyi, etc. - have chosen the sensible cure, so that with them there isn't even the slightest hint of aphasia; we talk as easily as we're both doing now in our mother tongue, and we often laugh a lot, as you well know."

"I see! What you call the sensible cure is Esperanto, isn't it? Have I been treated with Esperanto?"

"You're a special case. You didn't have to go through any formal rehabilitation. You were lucky enough just to be present when we had guests from far away or to go with us when we spent our holidays in Bulgaria, Finland, Italy, and so on, or when we won the prize that awarded our family a tour in Brazil where we contacted mostly people who speak Esperanto. So you picked up the language without doing anything special."

"This masochistic treatment... Is that English?"

"Yes, and all kinds of other languages."

"As for me, I like languages. Many of my friends hate German, but I like it. I'm glad that here German is the first foreign language taught in school."

"It's good to hear you say that. Learning a foreign language is always a positive experience, it opens up the mind, even if you never reach the stage of real mastery."

"Tell me, why does the Esperanto treatment give better results than the others?"

"It attacks the disease by inserting simple multiple-effect programs. For instance, how do you form the past tense in Esperanto? How do you say he came, he fell, he caught, he drank, he sang, he thought ? Do you have to search your memory, to scan your brain?"

"Of course not, I just use the -is ending: li venis, li falis, li kaptis, li kantis, li trinkis, li pensis."

"Well, with the masochistic treatment, it is much more complicated. These poor Czech and Korean guys, after learning how to say come, fall, catch, drink, sing, think, had to memorize many additional forms that you can't deduce by yourself, as we do with the -is ending: came, fell, caught, drank, sang, thought, plus a lot of other details, for instance that the a in drank is not pronounced like the a in came, or that the ou in thought has nothing in common with the ou in tough, though, through or cough. In other words, to be able to discuss past events in English - and it's the same in most languages - you have to stuff your brain with long series of special forms while we just use an ending we learned in a second and which we never forget. And it's the same thing with hundreds of thousands of particulars of the language."

"I see. In German it's the same thing. A lot of irregular verbs, plurals you have to learn practically with every noun, words you have to put at a special place in a sentence, all kinds of constraints we don't have in Esperanto. But since Esperanto gives such good results, how come people don't adopt it?"

"They're not told about the differences between the various treatments. The result is that mankind is divided into two groups: a small, marginal community completely free from sociogenic aphasia, and an enormous majority of people who sweat for years and years over their mental gymnastics without ever reaching full recovery, as you've seen with the Czech and the Korean, with their jerky, stammering, labored attempts at speech, which didn't enable them to understand each other. Yet, this Korean was a grown-up in a suit, so we can be pretty sure he had at least 2000 hours of English in school, plus some practice afterwards. Another drawback of the masochistic treatment is that many of the things that you acquire during the rehabilitation cure go away very quickly if you don't practice them every day. In a system in which effort is not targeted towards result, strength and flexibility are preserved only if you never stop practicing."

"Why aren't people told all that?"

"I don't know. You know, being a parent doesn't give you the ability to answer every question. What I notice is that every time the sensible treatment is suggested, there appear a lot of people who counter it, discredit it and discourage people from trying it. You should see on the Internet! It's full of forums where a few cured ones propose the treatment, but they're repeatedly rejected, even insulted, by people who promote the masochistic system and appear to be irritated at the idea that something else works better."

"But how do they justify their rejection? It's strange! Our system works so well!"

"I don't understand them. They never produce facts. They never make comparisons They never go and see how our therapy works. Instead of giving data or arguments, they limit themselves to subjective a priori judgments: 'It's absurd'! 'It's utopian'! 'It's not serious'! Or they talk of the future as if they knew it: 'It will never work'! 'It's not realistic.'! And the like."

"Why do they do that?"

"How could I know? I've tried to understand, but I've failed. Most probably they have no idea themselves of why they react that way. They seem to be frightened, but what are they scared of? Afraid to be a full-fledged human being who can fully exploit his brain's built-in programming which facilitates the exchange of ideas? There are children who are afraid of growing up, of having to give up their toys and face up to adult responsibilities. Part of them wants to be big and grown-up, but another part seeks refuge in childishness. It might be something similar. You're right. It's not normal. Why hamper, slow down, block the spreading of a procedure that affords a complete recovery? I guess this desire to keep the treatment from spreading and curing the whole world is an effect of the pandemic."

"What's a pandemic?"

"It's a public health term. You say epidemic for a disease that rapidly spreads in a limited area, and pandemic when it affects practically the whole population. In this case it's a purely mental disease since it inhibits speech in people whose brain is unharmed. Unfortunately, mental diseases usually resist being treated."

"You used to work in public health. Couldn't you do something?"

"No. Authorities are contaminated. That's the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. In a pandemic, healthy people are such a tiny minority that their impact is negligible. The Korean and the Czech we just saw had made tremendous efforts to free themselves from aphasia, but they've never succeeded in reaching normal mutual comprehension. Why? Because authorities in both their countries are also affected by the disease and choose the wrong treatment. All through the world, authorities refuse to compare therapies, as though comparison was not the normal way of knowing which system is the most effective."

"Is it always like that in public health work?"

"No. When smallpox was eradicated, there were first pilot experiments: the various strategies were applied in limited populations in order to see what worked best, what were the disadvantages, what were the risks. In twelve years smallpox was eradicated. Sociogenic aphasia could be eliminated in less time. Pilot trials would not be necessary. Treatment by Esperanto has been tried by millions of people in more that 120 countries. We have a vast experience, covering more than a century, and tons of documents. We have all kinds of the data that people would need to judge its effectiveness. You know, humankind is very strange. It is often afraid of its own good. Moreover, there are many people who prefer blocking an effective treatment and letting everybody else flounder about in their pathology, as is the case with sociogenic aphasia, simply for the sake of having the best of the argument in a discussion. You should see the Internet forums! You are still too young to realize it, but the various forms of pathology are quite widespread among our fellow Terrans."

"I often grumble about you, and I blame you, my parents, even if I never tell you what goes through my mind, but as far as aphasia is concerned. I'm real glad that, thanks to what happened when I was little, I didn't catch the disease. Just think, if I had, I'd never have met Lydia, or even if I met her, I would never have been able to talk with her. Just the thought of that makes me ache all over."

This conversation takes place in the French speaking part of Switzerland.