18076Foreign Accent Syndrome: 'The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese'
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Watch three videos of Sarah Colwill on Pulse:
THE WOMAN FROM PLYMOUTH WHO WOKE UP WITH A CHINESE ACCENT
By Ruth Styles
September 3, 2013
How would you feel if one day you awoke to find your Glaswegian, Home
Counties or West Country tones inexplicably gone, with a French, Danish
or even Indonesian accent in its place?
38-year-old Sarah Colwill doesn't have to wonder. On March 7, 2010, she
woke up to discover that her customary Plymouth pronunciation had gone
-- replaced by Chinese enunciation.
Sarah is one of the handful of people to be diagnosed with Foreign
Accent Syndrome, a condition so rare there were just 61 confirmed cases
between 1941 and 2012.
So what is it like to live with a voice that is not your own? A new BBC
documentary, The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese, aims to find some answers.
The star of the show is Colwill herself, whose bizarre Chinese accent is
completely at odds with her looks, background and experiences.
After suffering a severe migraine, Colwill was rushed to hospital only
for doctors to be left baffled after she developed a strong Chinese accent.
'It's just been such a horrible thing to go through,' she sobs in the
opening scenes of the documentary.
'People automatically assume I'm foreign, for a start, then they like to
try and work out where I might be from.'
Sarah is seen getting her hair cut in a Plymouth salon, where the
hairdresser asks where she's from and how long she has lived there.
It's all the more galling because Sarah has lived and worked in the city
all her life.
It's perhaps no surprise then, that since that fateful 2010 day, Sarah's
focus has been almost entirely on getting her voice back.
But with doctors and scientists equally mystified, it's been a struggle.
There is one clue though -- Sarah is a migraine sufferer.
She gets them, she says, around 10 times a month and so far, medics have
been unable to find anything that gets rid of them completely.
This could be important, as one of the few things known about Foreign
Accent Syndrome is that its linked to headaches and is thought to be a
type of neurological brain damage.
Fellow sufferer, Kay Russell, 52, who also appears in the documentary,
suffered severe headaches for years before a particularly bad migraine
left her with a French accent in place of her habitual Gloucestershire
'Up until I met Kay, I thought I was the only person in the world that
this happened to,' says Sarah, sadly.
'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"'
One of the world's few experts in Foreign Accent Syndrome, Professor
Nick Miller, adds: 'There are some common threads that run through their
stories. There's a lot of frustration about "why me?" and "why is nobody
able to explain why this has happened to me?"'
As yet, there is no cure for Foreign Accent Syndrome. Sufferers can have
voice therapy but at present, little more can be done.
That hasn't stopped Sarah from looking. 'You don't even know who you are
anymore,' she says of the condition. 'It's like you're trapped inside
SARAH COLWILL SPEAKS OUT ABOUT FOREIGN ACCENT SYNDROME IN BBC
DOCUMENTARY 'THE WOMAN WHO WOKE UP CHINESE'
By Emily Thomas
The Huffington Post
September 5, 2013
When Sarah Colwill, 38, was hospitalized for an intense migraine in
2010, she awoke to an astounding sound -- her voice.
Her familiar English accent had been replaced by what sounded like a
poor impression of a Chinese person, leaving doctors scratching their heads.
Her predicament was a side effect of a rare neurological condition
called Foreign Accent Syndrome.
Colwill is one of just 150 confirmed cases ever of FAS, according to the
Independent. The condition is most often caused by damage to the brain
brought on by a stroke or traumatic brain injury, UT Dallas reports.
In a new BBC documentary ??The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese,?? which aired
Tuesday, Colwill??s life with an alien voice proves to be less like an
episode of Summer Heights High and more like a nightmare.
"It's just been such a horrible thing to go through,?? Colwill says
teary-eyed in the opening scenes of the documentary.
"You don't even know who you are anymore...It's like you're trapped
Certain scenarios explored in the documentary make the condition seem
near comical: Colwill??s asked to say "chopsticks" by her speech
therapist, the pressure she receives to order fried-rice at a restaurant
and the necessity of avoiding certain phrases.
Colwill explains, "I always say 'you can not', because otherwise it
comes out, 'you c***'."
But the symptoms of her illness are much more tragic. They also include
a loss of vocabulary and physical pain while trying to write English.
In the BBC doc, Colwill finds solace with a fellow sufferer of FAS, Kay
Russell, 52, who after a terrible migraine was left with a French accent
in place of her British accent.
"You feel so alone so when somebody pops up and says "actually, I have
it," she says on camera. "They sound foreign and they have to deal with
it in the same way as me."
According to NBC??s chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman, speaking in
a segment on the Today show in 2011, some cases have reportedly cleared
While there is currently no cure for FAS, one clue that may help
scientists understand the condition is migraines. Colwill says she gets
them around 10 times a month. Russell also suffered for years from
In recent years there have been similar cases of others waking to the
startling discovery of a new lint. In 2012 an Englishman, Alun Morgan,
awoke from a massive stroke to find that he spoke fluent Welsh, despite
never learning the language.
In June, an Australian woman spoke out about her personal struggle with
FAS for eight years, having developed a French accent after surviving a
car crash in which she broke her back and jaw.
Wikipedia on Foreign Accent Syndrome
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