[lg policy] Bowe Bergdahl: Could he have lost English skills?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 5 14:30:00 UTC 2014


Bowe Bergdahl: Could he have lost English skills?
Kim Painter, Special for USA TODAY
<http://www.usatoday.com/staff/965/kim-painter>8:29 p.m. EDT June 4, 2014
[image: AFP_530372343_64709772]

(Photo: AL-EMARA via AFP/Getty Images)
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The release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captors this week has raised
many questions
<http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/06/04/five-questions-bowe-bergdahl/9953551/>
.

One of interest to students of language and psychology: Is it possible that
the young man from Idaho lost much of his ability to speak and understand
English during his five years as a prisoner in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Bergdahl's father, Robert, suggested that during an initial video message
to his son this week, in which he spoke partly in Pashto, the language of
the captors. A Defense Department official confirmed to CNN
<http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/01/world/asia/afghanistan-bergdahl-release/>
that Bergdahl was struggling with English.

Though it's not uncommon for people immersed in a new language for months
or years to suffer some "language attrition" in their native tongues, it
would be unusual for an adult to lose a first language entirely or for
normal skills not to return quickly, experts say.

*MORE: *Five questions surrounding Bowe Bergdahl
<http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/06/04/five-questions-bowe-bergdahl/9953551/>

"Once a first language becomes established, it's not easily shaken," says
Sandra Disner, a linguistics professor at the University of Southern
California.

Even for long-held prisoners of war, language loss is rare, says Charles
Marmar, chairman of psychiatry at the New York University Langone Medical
Center and director of the NYU Cohen Veterans Center.

"Most people, even under conditions of brutal captivity, maintain their
language," if only in their private thoughts and dreams, Marmar says. "It's
a way of defining themselves and maintaining continuity with their previous
life."

Special circumstances, including extreme isolation and trauma, might
produce more profound language losses in some susceptible individuals.

The Taliban have released a video showing the handover of American soldier
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. (June 4) AP

Marmar says he can't diagnose Bergdahl from afar with "Stockholm syndrome,"
but a "minority of people held under conditions of continuous threat … will
strongly over-identify with their captors," adopting their language,
clothing and mannerisms. "It's a way to be part of group that's in power.
You feel safer."

Another possibility: Bergdahl is out of practice with any language. Roy
Hallums, a private contractor held by Iraqi insurgents for 10 months, told
CNN he was forced to stay silent in captivity. It took him a while to start
talking at all, he said. "It's like your vocal cords are like your muscles
in your arms," he said. "If they don't get any use, they get out of shape."

That doesn't explain why Bergdahl might have trouble understanding English,
as his father suggested. Loss of understanding is much less likely than
some loss of speaking ability, says Merel Keijzer, a Dutch expert on
bilingualism who is a visiting scholar at Pennsylvania State University.

Studies "have been done in much less extreme situations," she says, "but in
cases where comprehension is affected, it's very subtle."

If Bergdahl did lose English skills, "my guess is that within hours to days
of being immersed in English-language culture, he will recover them,"
Marmar says.

That's what language experts see in people who return from happier
language-immersion experiences, such as study-abroad programs, Disner says:
"The good news is that after reasonably short exposure to their friends,
their families and their music, English comes back like gangbusters."
fwd from Courierpostonline.org

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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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