Languages affected differently by dementia

This is interesting.

Languages affected differently by brain disease

There are differences in the way English and Italian speakers are affected by dementia-related language problems, a small study suggests.

While English speakers had trouble pronouncing words, Italian speakers came out with shorter, simpler sentences.

The findings could help ensure accurate diagnoses for people from different cultures, the researchers said.

Diagnostic criteria are often based on English-speaking patients.

"We think this is specifically because the consonant clusters that are so common in English pose a challenge for a degenerating speech-planning system," said study author Maria Luisa Gorno-Tempini, professor of neurology and psychiatry.

“In contrast, Italian is easier to pronounce, but has much more complex grammar, and this is how Italian speakers with [primary progressive aphasia] tend to run into trouble.”

As a result, the English speakers tended to speak less while the Italian speakers had fewer pronunciation problems, but simplified what they did say.


I think this might be yet another reason to standardize the ridiculous spelling and pronunciation of English words (though, bough, through, thought, cough, enough, hiccough).

The Yanks are at least trying to standardize, but they spoil things by using longer and longer sentences in order to appear “elegant” and “educated”. Look at this 56-word monster from TWP that appeared in my morning emails, entitled “Senate measure to limit Trump’s military power on Iran has the votes, key Democrats say”:

  • The administration has defended the operation as vital, even in the face of bipartisan frustration on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers have chastised Trump and his senior advisers for taking such provocative action without consulting them first — and for refusing to say when they might seek Congress’s authorization before conducting similar strikes in the future.

You might say that’s 26 words shorter than Abe’s famous last sentence in the GB Address. But Abe’s phrasing makes it seem like five individual sentences - at an average of 16 words per sentence. That’s about the same as the Readers Digest. So it’s much easier to understand than some of the modern monstrosities.


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I think the BBC might be jumping to conclusions here…

The San Francisco research team says it now wants to repeat the research in larger groups of patients, and look for differences between speakers of other languages, such as Chinese and Arabic.

Even though I don’t understand why it has to be Chinese and Arabic… in fact, Dutch and German for the Germanic branch and French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian for the Italic branch would make more sense if you’re hypothesis is language clusters in both language families. Nothing more are the researchers saying… they want to test in a follow up study if consonant clusters are the reason… the BBC makes it sound like this has already been shown.

Alternatively/Additionally, one could go more extreme with the consonant clusters and pick a few of the Slavic languages and contrast them with some essentially consonant cluster free languages such as Malay or to a lesser extend Japanese. However, some Slavic languages like Czech, Slovak and Slovene have fluid consonants, allowing l and r to function like vowels; which in turn makes this particular hypothesis a bit of a moving target.

Another reason could be that Italian is a very melodic language when compared to English. I guess from that point of view it would make sense to pick a tonal language like Chinese as they are suggesting; however, that is not the hypothesis they are testing.

Lastly, if those Italian speakers happened to be first or second generation immigrants and thus more or less bilingual or with an understanding of English but a preference to speak Italian, then all bets are off if they are being compared to monolingual English speakers.

Lot’s of research done on the influence of a second language on how you handle your L1 and how you brain filters between the two… code switching, etc. It could be that bilingualism rather than language related aspects such as consonant clusters or melody is the key.

The only thing I get from the article that makes sense in a foregone conclusion kind of way is

The researchers […] are concerned that many non-native English speakers may not be getting the right diagnosis “because their symptoms don’t match what is described in clinical manuals based on studies of native English speakers”.


While not all of us share your evaluation of ‘ridiculous’ over the whole language though I grant you that your choice of example is on the verge of being ridiculous when taken in isolation.

I heard a nice take on pronunciation recently in a podcast - two Americans did a podcast on "Cockney Rhyming Slang) it was absolutely hilarious! One of the helpful things they came up with was

The actor: “My cocaine”. (Michael Caine) And yes it’s more accurate than the standard spelling.

Recently an intern from Romania who is pretty amazing at English asked me to explain why focused is not spelled with a double “s”. I told her I had no idea, but when I listened to myself pronouncing the word I found it was stressed on the first syllable, so maybe that was a rule? She looked it up and seemingly it is.

I once used to deal with an Italian guy who spoke like the Queen. He sounded ridiculous because he had precise hard vowels in the old BBC (1940’s and 50’s style) - yet I do not know anyone who learned in the UK who uses hard vowels these days for words like “garage” (I bet the old Queen herself would not speak about a “gah-RADJ” no it’s a gar-age).

US English is almost as varied as UK English in my experience - but it is still all English. (Though how the fuh they can get Booooeeee out of “buoy” I’ll never understand).

Maybe I should ask my cocaine?