The Daily Mail UK reports that Australian Ben McMahon was involved in a car accident that put him into a coma. When he awoke a week later, he could no longer speak English, all he could utter was “fluent CHINESE”!
The 22-year-old remembers how he woke up and saw a nurse who looked Asian standing by his bed and said to her ‘Excuse me nurse, I feel really sore here’ in Chinese. He then asked the nurse for a piece of paper and pen and he wrote on it in Mandarin: ‘I love my mum, I love my dad, I will recover.’
This story is anecdotal and there’s no proof of the conversation or message, or of McMahon’s apparent “fluency” in Mandarin. The article is accompanied by the above image of McMahon holding a piece of paper with Chinese characters, which might imply that this was the original message.
What’s going on here? Some people might think this is a case of xenoglossia, the alleged phenomenon that a person can begin speaking in a foreign, unknown language spontaneously. According to the theory, this might be the result of psychic powers, channeling abilities, or demonic possession. No claims of xenoglossia have ever been proven.
The fact that McMahon learned some Mandarin in school gives us a clue of what happened. This is likely to be a case of bilingual aphasia. Second languages (any languages learned after the first language) are stored in different parts of the brain to the native tongue. Therefore, brain injuries can affect bilingual speakers differently to monolingual people. Bilingual aphasia is damage caused to the fronto-subcortical loop. This can lead to switching between the first and second language and cause attrition of the language that is more automatic to the speaker.
This doesn’t mean that McMahon was suddenly fluent in Mandarin, as claimed. He was just speaking in the only language to which he had access at the time. He probably didn’t know very much Mandarin either, and it’s impossible that he could have known more than he knew before the accident. The story is amazing enough without the reporter making it seem as though something supernatural had taken place…
Bilingual aphasia can be temporary, or it can be permanent. Fortunately, after about three days, McMahon regained his use of English, and he went on to study commerce at a university in Shanghai.