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Stengel, E. (1939). On Learning a New Language. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 20:471-479.

(1939). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 20:471-479

On Learning a New Language

Erwin Stengel

The events of the last few years have given rise to an interesting mass problem which deserves the attention of the psycho-analyst. It is the problem of the mental processes which lead to and accompany the acquisition of a foreign language in a foreign country. This problem is of especially great importance for a psycho-analyst who has to continue his work in a new country. My interest in the subject originated from previous studies of speech defects in diseases of the brain: I had concerned myself with some symptoms which may lead to an understanding of some of the difficulties arising in learning a new language.

There is no need to-day to give evidence that we are justified in examining the speech defects of aphasics according to the same principles as the errors of the healthy adult and the deficiencies of infantile language. It is noteworthy that Freud in his book on aphasia (1891) wrote that many of the mistakes of aphasic patients are of the same kind as the slips of the tongue which may happen to healthy individuals in states of fatigue and absent-mindedness. Hughlings Jackson, the founder of modern brain pathology, recognized and described the phenomena in aphasia as a re-development of normal mental processes.

I will begin with a simple phenomenon. If after complete loss of speech language begins to return, the patient often shows a symptom called echolalia. He repeats, as it were automatically, words heard by him. This symptom has been regarded as a typical automatism; but the interpretation is not satisfactory. Echolalia occurs almost exclusively under conversational conditions and it is the result of a primitive tendency towards identification by the aid of which many aphasics seem to re-learn language. There is a similar state of echolalia in the early development of speech in childhood. In the process of the acquisition of a new language by an adult, we find hardly any trace of this involuntary repetition. The adult lacks this primitive mechanism of identification.

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