Foreign Language Syndrome

Jason Offutt explains how people can wake up from a coma speaking a new language.

Jason Offutt, Writing for
3-minute read
Episode #541
foreign language syndrome


When sixteen-year-old soccer goalkeeper Reuben Nsemoh, from Georgia, USA, recently dove for a ball, he didn’t see the foot that eventually collided with his head. That kick put the Brookwood High School athlete into a three-day coma.

After Nsemoh finally awoke in the hospital, he could speak fluent Spanish. However, before the head injury, the only language he could speak fluently was English—which he seemed to have forgotten, according to WSB-TV. As he began to remember how to speak in English, his knowledge of Spanish began to fade.

Nsemoh’s case is rare, but not unheard of.

This is called foreign language syndrome, and can occur when a person becomes unconscious due to a brain injury. The brain attempts to reboot itself, often working around the damage. Sometimes this manifests itself physically, and the person temporarily loses the use of limbs, and sometimes … well, the person speaks a language he or she couldn’t speak before (at least not fluently).

In cases of foreign language syndrome, after the brain readjusts, people usually forget how to use the foreign language and start speaking in their original tongue again.

Four hundred years ago, if the person could survive the head injury, they may not survive being burned as a witch when they suddenly started speaking Portuguese.

Although some people want to explain this phenomena through a paranormal lens, science (the no-fun guys) has been able to explain foreign language syndrome. If a person has learned a second language—even if they have forgotten most of it—as the brain heals, it shifts its functions through the secondary language, Queensland Brain Institute neuroscientist Dr. Pankaj Sah told the Melbourne Herald Sun.

Regardless, it’s still fascinating, and similar to foreign accent syndrome, where people with head injuries wake from comas speaking in a foreign accent.

Other cases of foreign language syndrome include:

Michael Thomas Boatwright: In 2013, police found an unconscious man in a motel in Southern California. Although the man’s identification cards said he was Michael Boatwright from Florida, after the man woke in Desert Regional Medical Center, he claimed his name was Johan Ek, according to CNN. He also spoke Swedish. Boatwright was a Navy vet, tennis pro, once taught English in Southeast Asia, and was divorced with a child. He remembered none of it.


About the Author

Jason Offutt, Writing for Grammar Girl
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