Druze toddler amazes experts by speaking English without having learned it

Druze toddler amazes experts by speaking English without having learned it

Family says they don't know how their 3.5-year-old boy learned language, complete with British accent, and don't always understand him

O'Neal Mahmoud, an Israeli Druze boy from the town of Majdal Shams who speaks fluent English. (Screen capture: Channel 10)
O'Neal Mahmoud, an Israeli Druze boy from the town of Majdal Shams who speaks fluent English. (Screen capture: Channel 10)

A toddler from an Arabic-speaking Druze  family in the Golan Heights has been getting media attention for his uncanny ability to speak fluent English with a British accent, despite never having learned the language from his family.

O’Neal Mahmoud, 3.5, who was named after former NBA player Shaquille O’Neal, didn’t speak until the age of 2, his parents, from the Druze town of Majdal Shams in northern Israel, said on a TV show broadcast on Thursday, Channel 10’s “Real Faces.”

Then, after a period in which he made unclear noises, he began speaking fluent English, the parents and professional officials who treated him said. They said he regularly uses terms such as “My dear” and “Oh my goodness,” which are never used in his village.

“I don’t understand every word, and sometimes I tell him, ‘Yes, okay’ and I don’t understand what he’s saying,” said his grandfather, Yahya Shams.

He recognizes archaic items such as scales that were used to carry water from the well, knows words such as “rectangle,” “waterfall” and “motorbike,” without knowing the Arabic equivalents and often without his parents understanding him.

Experts were said to place the kid’s accent as a “Pakistani accent from south London,” with some suggesting soul reincarnation throughout the Hebrew-language TV report. Reincarnation is a central tenet of Druze faith.

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הצצה ראשונה לסיפור הלא ייאמן שאין לו שום הסבר הגיוני: צפו באוניל, הילד הדרוזי שהתחיל לדבר אנגלית שוטפת במבטא בריטי מבלי שמשפחתו יודעת את השפה.פנים אמיתיות עם אמנון לוי – מחר (חמישי) אחרי החדשות בערוץ עשר. לקטעים נוספים>>>www.10.tv/panim

Posted by ‎ערוץ עשר‎ on Wednesday, 30 May 2018

His family, none of whom are English speakers, says he has never been abroad and hasn’t watched a lot of English-language TV. An English-speaking family friend said the boy knew English the first time he ever met him.

O’Neal has a level of Arabic far below other children of similar age in his town, and speaks it in an accent typical for people from English-speaking countries. His family fears that he will face many difficulties in communication in his town.

He has been sent to a Druze kindergarten with an English-speaking teacher, but has had difficulty communicating with the other children.

The TV show invited medical experts to meet and view footage of the boy, and they couldn’t find a sufficient explanation.

Irit Holman, a nurse who works in Majdal Shams, said the parents first contacted her because he wasn’t speaking. “Then, they called me again and said he has a problem: He speaks, but he speaks like the king of England.”

Holman met him and said she was astounded. While as a nurse she couldn’t offer reincarnation as an explanation, she questioned why, if he had phenomenal memory and comprehension skills, he didn’t master Arabic first.

The phenomenon of a person suddenly knowing a language they cannot speak is known as xenoglossy. It usually happens after head injuries, but in cases that have been published, it has typically emerged that the person had previously learned the language and forgotten it, an explanation which is irrelevant to O’Neal’s case.

Dr. Khaloub Qa’awar, a speech therapist and clinical linguist, spent several hours with the boy, and concluded that his level of English was typical of a three-year-old who grew up in an English-speaking family, while his level of Arabic was far below that. She and neurologist Keren Ben Itzhak both told Channel 10 that they had never encountered such a case.

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