Why did Australian wake from coma speaking Mandarin? UWE academic explains in BBC documentary

Issue date: 15 March 2016

A case which puzzled doctors across the world will be explained by a University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) academic in a new television documentary.

Speech and language expert Dr Yvonne Wren will appear in World's Weirdest Events on Sunday (March 20), offering her view on why an Australian man woke speaking fluent Mandarin after being injured in a road accident.

Ben McMahon, 22, was unable to speak his native language English when he came round from a week-long coma after a car crash almost claimed his life.

Dr Wren was invited by the BBC Two show's producers to share her expert opinion on the unlikely turn of events, which happened in Melbourne in in 2012.

She said, “We don't fully understand what happened as a result of Ben's injury. One possibility is that areas of Ben's brain where he learned his native language were damaged but the areas where he learned his second language were not. This meant the access to his additional language was better than for his native language.”

Ben told journalists he remembered waking up from his coma and telling an Asian nurse 'Excuse me nurse, I feel really sore here' in Chinese. It was reported in the media that he later wrote a note to a nurse in Mandarin, saying 'I love my mum, I love my dad, I will recover.' It is understood Ben took two or three more days to recall how to speak English.

He has since gone on to study in Shanghai and nowstars as a Chinese game show host.

Although Ben insisted he was never fluent in the Mandarin he had learned at school, Dr Wren believes all the words he used when he woke from the coma were ones to which he would have been previously exposed.

She said: “He said that when he came around he was much better at Mandarin than he was before. It is possible that his access to Mandarin was much quicker because he didn't have access to his native English, which could be an inhibiting factor, slowing access to the second language. If your native language is unavailable to you, it is possible that you become more proficient in your second language because the inhibiting effect of the native language is no longer there.”

Dr Wren, who has been a visiting research fellow at UWE Bristol since 2006, added: “What happened was very unusual and there's not really a name for it. Although there is a similar phenomenon called Foreign Accent Syndrome which can occur following brain injury or neurological damage, that is different because it only affects the way you pronounce words.

“Ben's situation is different as he started to speak fluently in a language which he had previously reported to have minimal competence with. However, it is likely that he had absorbed more of the language than he realised from his school Mandarin lessons."

Presented by Chris Packham, the eight-part series explores the unexplained, unexpected and unidentifiable which occur in science and nature. Among the unusual phenomena investigated are rats capable of sniffing out landmines, a glacier which bleeds red and a man who can become drunk without consuming alcohol.

Dr Wren was interviewed by the BBC at Frenchay Hospital, where she works at Bristol Speech & Language Therapy Research Unit for North Bristol NHS Trust. Her specialism is children with developmental problems but she also has expertise in children born with cleft palate.

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