In September, Reuben Nsemoh was kicked in the head during a soccer match. Nsemoh, a 16-year-old goalkeeper, blacked out and stopped breathing, causing his coach to fear he was going to die. Instead, the American woke up from his concussion, a few days later, speaking only fluent Spanish. Doctors have since diagnosed him with a rare condition called “Foreign Accent Syndrome” (FAS).
FAS is often caused by brain trauma, induced by a stroke or traumatic brain injury, and ultimately causes a change in speech that gives a speaker a “foreign accent.” Other potential causes have been traced to multiple sclerosis and conversion disorder, though in some cases the cause was unknown.
There are only 100 documented cases of the syndrome, the first case tracing back to 1907 when a Norwegian woman developed a German accent after suffering a shrapnel injury to the brain during the Nazi Occupation of Norway. Earlier this summer, a Texas mom woke up with a British accent after incurring nerve damage from a jaw surgery. Documented FAS cases have involved accent changes, including Japanese to Korean, British-English to French, American-English to British-English, and Spanish to Hungarian.
While Nsemoh woke up from his multi-day coma speaking Spanish, that was because he had already been learning the language. Foreign Accent Syndrome can alter the timing, intonation, and tongue placement of speech, but it can’t actually imbue a concussed patient with a new language. Rather, it changes a person’s normal speech in ways that can cause listeners to interpret it as a foreign accent.
Slowly, Nsemoh’s English is coming back, and he’s losing his Spanish accent, but things are far from normal for the teenager.
“Sometimes I daze out, sometimes I’m not there,” Nsemoh told CNN.
Nsemoh still suffers from seizures, and it’s unclear when he’ll be back to full health. Traumatic brain injuries, like the one Nsemoh suffered, can result in a number of medical issues, including increased risk of suicide, sleep disorders, and dysphasia.
Nsemoh’s family has set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for his medical bills. So far they’ve raised $15,665 of their $25,000 goal.
Photos via Kiran Narker, Getty Images / Alex Livesey