When Ben McMahon went into a coma after a car crash, he spoke English; when he woke up, he spoke only fluent Mandarin. Although the Australian man had taken Mandarin in high school, he was never fluent, and doctors are still trying to figure out exactly why he completely lost the ability to speak his native language—his English skills did eventually return—and suddenly became the “best non-native speaker” his Mandarin pals had ever heard, the Independent Journal Review reports.
McMahon isn’t the first person to suffer a brain injury or illness and come out of it with a foreign accent or speaking a different language.
Scientists often attribute this phenomenon to “bilingual aphasia”: Different languages are retained in different parts of the brain, so if one section is injured, a person’s brain could transition over to another stored language, Discoveryreports.
In cases where there’s swelling in the affected part of the brain, the “lost” language is typically recovered once the swelling subsides. Whatever the cause in his case, McMahon is certainly taking advantage of his newfound linguistic skills: He has led Mandarin tours and served as co-host on a Chinese TV show, and now he’s living and taking college courses in Shanghai.