Being able to speak another language is one of the most valuable skills you can have in terms of both work and leisure. However, unlike the rest of the team here at Language Insight, I have struggled to advance much past GCSE-level French.

But there could be a way for me to perfect my French, and possibly learn another language as well – even one that is no longer spoken. Have you ever heard of Xenoglossy?

Xenoglossy is the paranormal phenomenon whereby a person is suddenly able to speak a new language, despite not having visited the country of its origin, known anyone who speaks it natively or studied it. And in addition to existing world languages, there have also been cases of people spontaneously being able to speak ancient languages that are no longer in use.

Talk like an Egyptian

One of the most famous examples of Xenoglossy happened just up the road from Language Insight headquarters, in Blackpool. It occurred in 1931 and concerned a young woman called Rosemary, who appeared to be able to speak a long-dead language originating from Ancient Egypt. Rosemary claimed she was channelling an Egyptian princess, who gave her the ability to speak the language. An Egyptologist who listened to recordings of her confirmed she was speaking the extinct language.

Can you imagine waking up one day and suddenly being able to speak fluent French, Welsh or even Latin? It would certainly save you money on lessons and make going on holiday overseas a lot easier.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence to back up claims of Xenoglossy as so few cases have been documented and studied. There is always the chance the subject is lying and has actually learnt the language. Cases where people can speak dead languages are even harder to verify as there are no recordings of them being spoken natively to compare the subject to.

Another issue is subjectivity. You may remember our blog post last week about Koshik the talking elephant. The creature is said to have learnt several Korean words and uses its trunk to alter its mouth and mimic human speech. However, verifying cases like this – as with cases of Xenoglossy – can be tricky as the results are often subject to the observer-expectancy effect. This occurs when a person expects to see or hear something and so does. So, if you were told to listen to a recording of an elephant you might just hear it making elephant noises, but if you were told to listen to a talking elephant there’s a greater chance you’ll pick out certain words. Similarly, a person claiming to be speaking an ancient language could be talking gibberish, but you may perceive parts of it as being legitimate.

In humans, Glossolalia is the term used to describe those who speak a made-up language. Although essentially talking gibberish, it has the flow of real chatter and may include similar terms and syllables, which can fool the listener into believing they are hearing something other than gobbledygook.

Forgotten memories

While the sceptics are quick to dismiss claims of the sudden ability to speak a new language, I would love it if this happened to me. And there might just be a way to make sure it does.

Another phenomenon, Cryptomnesia, could hold the key to taking the pain out of learning a language. This is the name given to long-forgotten memories suddenly surfacing in a way that makes you believe you are thinking them for the first time. It could be a person writing a song, who later discovers the same tune was composed and made famous by someone else and the musician happened to hear it several years earlier.

The memory is a powerful part of the mind and it can work in mysterious ways. You may remember an episode of the Channel 4 series Derren Brown: Trick or Treat in 2008, in which Derren was able to help one man take on some of the brightest minds in London and win. The magician promised to help Glen Brighton come out on top at one of the city’s most challenging pub quizzes, The Night of Champions, where 100 general knowledge experts from all over the country formed teams of up to six to tackle some of the most baffling questions in quizdom. Mr Brighton had never won a quiz before, but despite working solo and with no outside help, he beat all the competition. So, how was it done?

Essentially, it’s a lot easier than you might think. In the week before the quiz, Mr Brighton was instructed by Derren Brown to speed read a mountain of reference books and encyclopaedias. Rather than actually read the words, he would glance at each page for a few seconds and memorise its image as though he was photographing it. This allowed him to get through far more material.

On the night of the quiz, the questions prompted his memory to recall the relevant images, meaning that Mr Brighton was able to answer questions like: “How many types of hummingbird are found in the Amazon rainforest.”

It is unlikely this method would prove successful in the long term. The reason Mr Brighton was asked to dig through the hundreds of texts just a week before the quiz was because it would still be fresh on the night, but without making the transition to long-term memory all of this newly-gained knowledge would disappear soon after.

So how can this help you learn a language? Well, the answer may also help to explain Xenoglossy. There has been a case where a man suddenly found he could write in an ancient language that was long extinct. He had no idea how he had come about the skill and had never learnt it or met anyone who spoke it. Later, it was discovered that some time before he realised he had the ability, the man had been sat in a library studying. Sitting next to him was a student reading a book that contained a written record of the dead language. The man must have glanced at it and later his memory released the information, enabling him to write in the language.

Now I have all the guidance I need to learn a language the easy way. All it takes is spending a few minutes looking – not reading – a book and (fingers crossed) a flook of Cryptomnesia will occur and one day I will be able to speak it fluently. Now to pick a language – Cacaopera or Thracian?


Image credits: CollegeDegrees360, wilhelmja & Stairhopper