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3-Year-Old Israeli Boy Baffles Doctors by Speaking English Without Ever Having Learned It

O’Neal Mahmoud, a 3-year-old from an Arabic-speaking Druze  family in the Golan Heights, Israel, has amazed doctors with his ability to speak English with a British accent without ever having been exposed to the foreign language.

Named after legendary basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, O’Neal Mahmoud didn’t speak at all until he was 2-years-old. Then he started making these unintelligible noises, and at one point started speaking fluent English and using phrases like “my dear” and “oh my goodness”, which are hardly ever used in his home village, near the Druze town of Majdal Shams, in northern Israel. Stranger still is the fact that O’Neal doesn’t actually know the Arabic equivalents of the English words he speaks. A speech therapist and clinical linguist who examined the toddler concluded that his level of English was that of a three-year-old who grew up in an English-speaking family, while his level of Arabic – his native language – was far below that.

Photo: BiljaST/Pixabay

“I don’t understand every word, and sometimes I tell him, ‘Yes, okay’ and I don’t understand what he’s saying,” O’Neal’s grandfather, Yahya Shams, told Channel 10. The boy was recently featured on the Israeli television’s “Real Faces” show.

The boy’s parents, neither of whom speak English, claim that he has never traveled abroad, and hasn’t been watching much English television. Still, he is somehow able to utter complicated words like “motorcycle”, “rectangle” or “waterfall”, without even knowing their Arabic equivalents. Because his Arabic speaking level is so low compared to other children his age, O’Neal has been sent to a Druze kindergarten with an English-speaking teacher. Still, he has been having difficulties communicating with both his parents and the other children at the kindergarten. His family fears that if his Arabic speaking skills don’t improve, he will have trouble integrating in the village.

Irit Holman, who works as a nurse, recalls that O’Neal’s parents first complained about his inability to speak at all. Then, they contacted her again to complain that he was speaking in English.

 

“Then, they called me again and said he has a problem: He speaks, but he speaks like the king of England,” Holman said on the program.

As a medical professional, the nurse couldn’t offer reincarnation – a central tenet of Druze faith – as an explanation, but she also questioned why, if he simply had an amazing memory and fantastic comprehension skills, he hadn’t mastered Arabic first.

Experts consulted by Channel 10 about O’Neal’s unusual ability suggested that it could be a case of xenoglossy, a mysterious phenomenon where a person is able to speak a language that they could not have acquired through natural means. However, evidence of xenoglossia is purely anecdotal, and according to Wikipedia, there is no scientific evidence that xenoglossy is an actual phenomenon.

 

Dr. Khaloub Qa’awar, a speech therapist and clinical linguist, and neurologist Keren Ben Itzhak, both told Channel 10 that they had never encountered or heard of a case like that of O’Neal Mahmoud.