Having woken up from a coma, polyglot William Hearn realized that all the languages he had ever learned were competing for the same space in his head — but he could no longer express himself in any of them properly.
In this story, William tells Glossika how he won his languages back.
The accident: Nice day for a motorcycle ride
It was a beautiful June day. My daughter wanted to go out for a motorcycle ride. She had my helmet on, and I didn't have one. I remember waiting to make a left-hand turn but had to stop, ’cause there was a truck coming toward us. The SUV behind us didn't see that we had stopped. The last memory I have of the accident was the sensation of falling to the left. I wrapped my arm around my daughter to hold her next to me.
My heart stopped twice on the way to the hospital and two more times on the operating table. Doctors worried about keeping me alive: I was given only 3% chance to live the night. I ended up in a coma with a brain injury.
I came out of my coma speaking multiple languages, unable to effectively communicate in any of them, not even English.
But it was a nice day for a motorcycle ride. It really was.
A head full of competing languages
My first experience studying a language was in 8th grade, reaching conversational French. By the time I graduated high school I had done 4 years of French, 4 years of German, and a year of Spanish. So I knew that languages were my thing.
In between my junior and senior years, I enlisted in the army. I took the pre-test to get into the Defence Language Institute (DLI) and then picked the Russian language. The course at DLI is 47 weeks long, but it was way more intense than a college language course. In DLI the language is all that you do. We were encouraged to speak Russian on our breaks, when we went out to eat — it was total immersion.
If you had to use the bathroom but you forgot how to ask in Russian, you'd just have to sit there.
So by the end of the year, I was around a low C1 level. I also studied Arabic in the military. In our office there were five of us Russian linguists, so we were able to finish our paperwork pretty early in the day. We would then study minor languages where we could help. I didn't speak Arabic that well but I could read and write it. So the Arabic linguist and I helped with some Arabic-related research. I did the same thing with Chinese. We just helped to look things up. I guess I reached a kind of intermediate level.
I loved DLI. That's why I joined the army. I learned about DLI, and then did whatever I had to do to get to that school. Afterwards I joined the army. So I didn't join the army first and then decide to go to DLI — I wanted to go to DLI, and that's why I joined the army.
Then I moved back to Ohio and didn't use my languages. I took different jobs, remaining a civilian for the rest of my life, so Russian and I parted ways.
But when I woke up out of a coma, it was like English and Russian were fighting for the same mental space. Most of my injuries were in the frontal and left temporal lobe, which is where your language center is. I could no longer speak any one language properly, but suddenly my old languages like French and German had all come back. Even Arabic came back, and I hadn't used it in 30-something years.
So all languages I've ever known or studied came fighting for a place in my brain.
Communicating with me was difficult if my daughter wasn’t around. I luckily raised her in both English and Russian. For doctors, it took a lot of back-and-forth between me and her in order to fill in the missing words so we could communicate. They said that I understood spoken English, but I just couldn't relay my thoughts in any one language.
The healing process
After my body had healed, the brain took forever to do its healing. It took a whole decade for my brain to finally rewire itself so I could function. But even now, 17 years after the accident, I keep forgetting things. Since I have a head full of languages, I developed dysphasia (the mixing up of words) — I'll be talking to you and I want to reference that chair over there, and suddenly I have three words in different languages jumping up to fight for that space. And I have to figure out which one is the English word. Sometimes the English word isn't even one of the options I'm given.
For several years certain words like fridge, and napkin were just stuck in Russian, and I had no way to get them back to English.
It took me years to be able to loan them back again to English. I had to re-learn them. We would be in a restaurant and I'd be asking for a салфетка (salfetka). My daughter would instinctively reach for a napkin ‘cause she's the only one who knew what I was asking for.
Remembering what happened 5 minutes ago was another big challenge. Most people are polite, but sometimes they tell me that I’ve already told them this same story 12 times today. And I even see some of that in my language studies now. If I try to tackle a language that I have no knowledge of, I struggle to retain the new information… whereas in Russian, even though I haven't actively spoken it for a long time, the words and the grammatical structures are still there. I still dream in Russian. So right now I’m just revitalizing what I already know.
I don't know if brand-new languages are out of the question. But I do think that once I bring my Russian back up to fluency, and have my brain functioning at a high level in two languages — that might allow me to take up a third language. Maybe even a fourth. I'll find out.
How Glossika helps me to retrain my brain
I was tackling several languages when I first started Glossika because I was trying to train my mouth to pronounce unfamiliar sounds — I was also retraining my brain to tackle new information. I've been using Glossika for four months now. My brain seems to be working better now, so I decided it was time to dive full-force into Russian.
I just loved the recordings and the repetition. I had checked out other websites, but their recordings were synthesized. I like that Glossika has natural, native recordings.
Glossika is part of my morning routine. I've just turned 56, my daughter is out of the house, I have my own free time now — I don't have a boss. I don't have a teacher making me learn certain things. I get up, have breakfast, check my emails, and then I do my 300 reviews and go right into 200 new sentences. I'm usually done by about one o'clock. Russian seems to be so ingrained in my head that I can just scan the sentences and understand them. My big focus here is listening comprehension and speaking.
I don't know what finishing the course would do for you, ‘cause normally for a native speaker of English, it would take about 1,100 hours to master Russian. I’m a different case because I already have so much of it in my head. On my way through Glossika, I don't know at what point my brain will click and Russian will become second nature for me again. It might be B1, B2 [levels 5-9]. I don't know, but I'll find out.
I do not miss the old methods where you grab a book and spend all night studying grammar and memorizing vocabulary.
Reading the sentences, just learning a sentence at a time, you're learning like a child.
Children learn by context.
It seems to be a more natural way to learn. It doesn't seem like labor. My military training was pretty intense, and I did accomplish a lot, but Glossika is more relaxed. I get to choose from a list of topics and decide what I want to learn.
Creating new memories
The only trouble with Russian for me was that it is tied up to my military experience. Everything in Russian in my mind is military, and I don't care about all these things anymore. So now I have to create new memories. When I'm going through the sentences in Glossika, I'm envisioning interactions with my grandkids and being out with my daughter. So that helps me do it on my own terms; I don't have to resort back to my military mindset.
The next language I would like to tackle is Arabic. I like the sound of it. But the brain injury is here to dominate — recent tests show that I’m only one point from being “deficient” in a few areas — and I need to keep that in mind. If your body's failing, eat right and exercise. I keep up with martial arts. My brain is failing me right now, so I exercise it by studying languages. I do everything I can to stay active, and it seems like that will postpone whatever degradation my brain is undergoing. My brain is much better than it was just six years ago.
Find a reason to love it. If you don't love it, you'll never put in the effort.
If you think you're too old to learn, or you have brain injury or memory problems — you can still do it. If I can do it in mental decline right now, I think anyone can do it. I wake up in the morning and I forget where I am… but I can still do this.
What language gives you
It seems like hard work at times, but find a reason to love it — find something in it that you can lash onto. ‘Cause once you cross that fluency line, the changes in your brain will amaze you. Even if you become “just” bilingual, it opens up doors you didn't know existed.
My daughter was at a large hospital in Columbus — every language and every nationality can be found in that little hospital. One day I was on an elevator and I started talking to a nurse and asked where she was from. She was from Belorussia, so I started speaking Russian with her. And she said that she hadn't heard Russian in 5 years. In other words, language brings smiles to peoples' faces. You've taken time out of your life to learn someone else's language.
And I think that's especially important in the USA right now. We do seem to see a lot of racism and hatred towards immigrants. Americans who don't speak anything except English argue that everybody should speak English. Technically, the US doesn't even have an official language. People crossing the southern border are not making this trip just for fun. They’re escaping poverty and violence, yet a lot of anger in our country is directed at them. I guess being a linguist helps me to embrace the humanity of the world. When you learn another language you're learning how those people process information and how they see the world.
For someone who has never taken the time to study a language, foreigners will always remain foreigners.
They seem different and sometimes even unworthy, for whatever reason. I don't think they are. I like to be an “alternative” American, I guess. ‘Cause not everyone has the will to learn another language. And for those who do, it's part of our job to be the communicators for the world.
I like being that bridge; I like being the connection.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.