Growing older in the ebb and flow of languages (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

Turning sixty marks a milestone for many of us. It certainly did for me, not long ago, happening as it did in the home of a close family friend who herself turned 92 earlier this year. I am on a team of friends who are conspiring to help her stay in the home she has lived in, deep in the Ontario countryside, for over fifty years. It’s a bit complicated, but well worth the effort.

One of the complications is the selective post-stroke aphasia that many older people suffer. The damage to the brain caused by strokes often results in language loss, among other impairments. The loss may be partial or complete; it may be temporary or permanent. In the case of someone who, like my nonagenarian friend, learned to speak a second language very fluently starting as a mature adult, research has found that the second language is often the more vulnerable one1. Many older stroke survivors revert to the first language learned in childhood for the time remaining to them (the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands helpfully explains why in very accessible language).

My friend had her first stroke when she was barely eighty. The will of iron that keeps her going to this day took over then; she followed the prescribed course of exercises with grim determination until she recovered the ability to walk, in just a few weeks. The ability to talk was something over which she could not as easily exert conscious control. For some months in 2006 or thereabouts it was uncertain whether she would regain expressive speech, though she clearly understood what was said to her. But first her native German, then the English she had worked so hard to acquire, slowly came back to her over the months and years, though never with the fluency she had commanded before the stroke. Words she knows she used to know often elude her now—as she will often say, struggling to finish a sentence with the one right word, “It’s flown away again…”

None of that has, to this day, changed her well-honed ability to beat the pants off all us younger players at Scrabble, in, of course, her second language! After leaving the disaster zone that was post-World War II Germany with her young family for distant Canada (my friend is a Berliner—what she lived through is worse than I can possibly imagine), she applied herself to the acquisition of English language and literature with the courage, determination and intelligence that then supported the four children through their schooling in the alien land, and that made it possible for their father to lead a somewhat peripatetic life seeking employment while she created a home for them all that came to define the very notion of “home” for many others as well. Surrounded by the trees and flowers she planted, by nesting birds she feeds, the house and its chatelaine embody one woman’s powerful, far-reaching conception of family.


My own family has been a major beneficiary—our “cottage” (as Torontonians are wont to term their country home) is a few fields away. Through four decades of proximity we have been welcome to come and go, near neighbours with cousinly status…it was the most natural of gestures for me to come to spend more and more time over at “the other house” when my family and my sister’s converged during summer vacations and the tiny Sarkar cabin was full to overflowing. Last week it was my sister who kindly supplied my birthday cake, carefully concocted to perfection in the kitchen you see behind us from a traditional German recipe our friend is famous for but can no longer make herself.

Nine decades of not letting up is bound to take its toll. The elder care team that is now in place must confront a number of new challenges. Not the least of them is the return of the selective aphasia of ten years ago. In moments of stress or fatigue it’s now quite likely to be German my friend needs to express herself in, which meant that the week I spent with her had its puzzling moments (my German, alas, is rudimentary). “Auf Englisch, bitte!” only works if the other person knows she isn’t speaking English at the time. Being with an interlocutor who so clearly understands everything one says, but who may respond at length and with eloquence in a language one doesn’t oneself speak, has, for me, called into question a lot of assumptions about what language is and what it is for.

Negotiating these slightly fraught dilingual2 conversations during the week I turned sixty had its hilarious moments, and also its deeply moving ones. The seeming fragility of spoken language (or languages, or languaging, whatever we may call it) as one grows older has brought home to me the importance of valuing at their just worth all the other means of communication we have at our disposal. Smiles, laughter, frequent and loving touch, music that we listened to together, usually turned out to be more important than talking, over the few days my friend and I spent growing older in each other’s company.

I will close by encouraging the reader to listen to a brief bit of the Bach that my friend and I both love. I heard it in concert last month, and am off now to this month’s cantata concert, to reflect on love, loss, language…and on listening to the soul, rather than understanding the sense, of German!



  1. For a fascinating and very readable first-person account available online, see Jürg Schwyter’s 2013 article on what it’s like to be a multilingual “losing language” after a stroke. Schwyter’s blog has still more information, including strategies on how to cope while struggling to recover from post-stroke aphasia.
  2. “Dilingual discourse” was defined by Muriel Saville-Troike in 1987 as “interaction between speakers of mutually unintelligible languages”; that is, the speakers are not bilingual, but they manage to communicate across the language gap. In the research context Saville-Troike was working in—kindergartens full of children from many ethnolinguistic backgrounds who had had no exposure to English before arriving at school—it was common.


Fabbro, F. (2001). The bilingual brain: Bilingual aphasia. Brain and Language79(2), 201-210.

Saville-Troike, M. (1987). Dilingual discourse: The negotiation of meaning without a common code. Linguistics, 25(1), 81-106.

Schwyter, J. (2011) ‘“Me talk funny”: a stroke patient’s personal account’, English Today, 27(4), 49-52.

Schwyter, J. (2013, August). Losing language: Multilingualism and aphasia. Babel: The language magazine, 30-34.




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