For example, is the fictional case of Robinson Crusoe realistic? He's still able to speak after being alone on an island for more than twenty years. I read that people would lose their ability to speak in similar situation, but I can't recall where, not from academic studies anyway.

Is there any reliable account of a real person who had been cut off from the rest of the world for years, and did (or didn't) lose much of his/her language ability?

One example I've found is Alexander Selkirk, he was left on an island for a little more than four years.

At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his Language for want of Use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seem'd to speak his words by halves - A Cruising Voyage Round the World

  • Not in isolation, but language loss/attrition by living in a foreign language environment: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/15150/9781 Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 10:35
  • I have added the tag reference-request to provoke well-sourced answers. Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 10:36
  • @jk-ReinstateMonica Thanks, couldn't find the right tag. I can imagine a new language replaces the old one, but I can't see total language loss happen, assuming the person manages to stay mostly sane somehow, by talking to a volleyball, writing and reading to himself, for example.
    – Eugene
    Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 11:32
  • Hiroo Onoda spent 29 years in hiding the Phillippines after the surrender of Japan, and Teruo Nakamura spent a similar period in Indonesia. Both were initially in the company of other holdouts though, and were not entirely isolated from the neighbouring population (as they undertook guerilla operations against them). Both seem to have been able to communicate perfectly well on their eventual surrender. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiroo_Onoda en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teruo_Nakamura
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 12:46
  • 1
    Yokoi Shoichi also spent 8 years alone in Guam after the last of his companions died in a flood en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoichi_Yokoi
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 12:51

1 Answer 1


There is a Japanese man, Masafumi Nagasaki, who lived in isolation on a deserted island for 29 years, by choice. Eventually he was discovered by a fisherman, and brought back to the mainland to receive medical care. He is still able to communicate in Japanese, and there is even a documentary made about him.

However it is not clear if he was completely isolated for all 29 years because there are some reports of family sending him food, or of him traveling to other nearby occasionally islands to trade with fisherman. More info here.

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