It has all the makings of a sci-fi movie – a 16-year-old in Atlanta has awoken from a coma speaking fluent Spanish, despite only taking basic lessons previous to his injury.
A few weeks ago, Rueben Nsemoh, a native English speaker, had a really bad day. While out playing football (soccer), he suffered a head injury which resulted in a concussion. After he woke up, he was speaking Spanish “like a native” — and to make things even weirder, he had obvious difficulties speaking in English.
“It started flowing out,” Rueben told Melissa Chan over at TIME. “I felt like it was like second nature for me. I wasn’t speaking my English right, and every time I tried to speak it I would have a seizure.”
“It was weird,” he added. “It was not scary at all. I actually liked it a lot. It was really unique to me.”
In the days since, he is slowly regaining his ability to speak English and his Spanish abilities are fading. But what exactly happened here?
Well as strange as it might seem, this case isn’t really unique. Although doctors aren’t really sure by now, it seems to be a case of Foreign Accent Syndrome, a very rare condition which seems to “rewire” some parts of the brain -temporarily or permanently. Basically, sufferers speech patterns that act like a foreign accent. If this is indeed the case, then it’s not like Rueben’s Spanish skills actually improved, it’s just that his speaking pattern changed, making it seem like he has a different accent. There are over 200 recorded cases in history, and likely many more that went unreported.
In one of the first documented cases, a Norwegian woman hit by bomb shrapnel during WWII seeming started talking with a German accent – which had an unfortunate consequence, as her neighbors thought she was a Nazi spy. At the moment, the exact mechanisms through which this happens are not perfectly known, and this is even more intriguing considering that Foreign Accent Syndrome is often associated with a loss of ability in speaking one’s native tongue.
Doctors believe Reuben will fully recover and his family is also confident.
“Definitely, it’s a miracle,” Nsemoh’s dad said. “My son is awake, I don’t care what language he’s speaking. Whatever went on, he’s alive today and I believe 100 percent in recovery.”
However, it’s not all good. As it too often happens in the US, when he woke up, he was slapped with a $250,000 medical bill – one that he obviously can’t afford to pay. For this reason, a GoFundMe page for Rueben has collected more than $11,000 but there’s still a long way to go. So if you want to support him, head on to his page.