Severe headache pain pounding from side to side and lasting for several hours can often be treated with an aspirin and a good night’s rest. For 38-year-old Sarah Colwill of Plymouth, UK, however, a severe migraine caused her to be rush to the hospital and wake up Chinese on March 7, 2010. The British woman’s Plymouth accent was completely gone and replaced by a Chinese accent.
Colwill, who stars in The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese, a new BBC documentary that premiered yesterday on BBC1, sheds light on a rare condition she shares with 60 other people with confirmed cases of foreign accent syndrome (FAS). According to the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), FAS is a speech disorder that causes a drastic changes in speech so that the native speaker is perceived to speak with a “foreign” accent. The speech is usually altered in terms of timing, intonation, and tongue placement, which makes it sound foreign, highly intelligible, and not disordered. Document FAS cases include accent changes from Japanese to Korean, British English to French, American English to British English, and Spanish to Hungarian, says UTD.
Currently, there is no cure for FAS but that doesn’t stop Colwill from finding the means to get her normal West Country tones back. The Plymouth woman struggles with the condition throughout her daily life and has even been the target of cruel jokes about the Chinese.
“They say to me go on make an order, ask for fried rice,” Colwill told Kay Russell in the BBC documentary. Russell, a fellow FAS patient, has suffered from severe headaches for years until she had a bad migraine that replaced her Gloucestershire accent with a French accent, reports the Daily Mail.
“Up until I met Kay, I thought I was the only person in the world that this happened to,” said Colwell in the documentary. “You feel so alone so when somebody pops up and says 'actually, I have it,' you feel better. You think 'they sound foreign and they have to deal with it in the same way as me.'"
Colwill’s frustrations are commonly voiced by other sufferers of FAS who feel they are unfairly targeted by the condition. “There's a lot of frustration about "why me?" and "why is nobody able to explain why this has happened to me?" said Professor Nick Miller, one of the world’s few experts in FAS, reports International Business Times UK.
A common link found among Colwill, Russell and other patients is severe migraines. Colwill gets severe migraines, or episodic migraines, around 10 times a month, and doctors are unable to find a way to permanently eliminate them.
In the UK, over 610,000 people suffer from chronic migraines — more than 15 headache days per month over a three-month period, according to The Migraine Trust.
The frequency of migraines in FAS patients could make the condition a type of neurological brain damage. Doctors believe that the condition is the result of miniscule areas of the brain related to language, pitch, and speech patterns suffering temporary damage, says Pimsleur Approach. This brain damage is often the result of a stroke or other brain injury, such as brain hemorrhage.
"I still find there's an element of doubt [with doctors] as to whether there is a mental cause. That's why I find it important to actually find out once and for all, is this caused by brain damage or is this a psychological issue,” said Colwell, reports International Business Times UK.
Colwill is currently focusing on getting her voice back by doing speech therapy.