How would you feel if one day you awoke to find your Glaswegian, Home Counties or West Country tones inexplicably gone, with a French, Danish or even Indonesian accent in its place?
38-year-old Sarah Colwill doesn’t have to wonder. On the March 7, 2010, she woke up to discover that her customary Plymouth pronunciation had gone – replaced by Chinese enunciation.
Sarah is one of the handful of people to be diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome, a condition so rare there were just 61 confirmed cases between 1941 and 2012.
So what is it like to live with a voice that is not your own? A new BBC documentary, The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese, aims to find some answers.
The star of the show is Colwill herself, whose bizarre Chinese accent is completely at odds with her looks, background and experiences.
After suffering a severe migraine, Colwill was rushed to hospital only for doctors to be left baffled after she developed a strong Chinese accent.
‘It’s just been such a horrible thing to go through,’ she sobs in the opening scenes of the documentary.
‘People automatically assume I’m foreign, for a start, then they like to try and work out where I might be from.’
Sarah is seen getting her hair cut in a Plymouth salon, where the hairdresser asks where she’s from and how long she has lived there.
It’s all the more galling because Sarah has lived and worked in the city all her life.
It’s perhaps no surprise then, that since that fateful 2010 day, Sarah’s focus has been almost entirely on getting her voice back.
But with doctors and scientists equally mystified, it’s been a struggle. There is one clue though – Sarah is a migraine sufferer.
She gets them, she says, around 10 times a month and so far, medics have been unable to find anything that gets rid of them completely.
This could be important, as one of the few things known about Foreign Accent Syndrome is that its linked to headaches and is thought to be a type of neurological brain damage.
Fellow sufferer, Kay Russell, 52, who also appears in the documentary, suffered severe headaches for years before a particularly bad migraine left her with a French accent in place of her habitual Gloucestershire tones.
‘Up until I met Kay, I thought I was the only person in the world that this happened to,’ says Sarah, sadly.
‘You feel so alone so when somebody pops up and says “actually, I have it”, you feel better. You think “they sound foreign and they have to deal with it in the same way as me”‘
One of the world’s few experts in Foreign Accent Syndrome, Professor Nick Miller, adds: ‘There are some common threads that run through their stories. There’s a lot of frustration about “why me?” and “why is nobody able to explain why this has happened to me?”‘
As yet, there is no cure for Foreign Accent Syndrome. Sufferers can have voice therapy but at present, little more can be done.
That hasn’t stopped Sarah from looking. ‘You don’t even know who you are anymore,’ she says of the condition. ‘It’s like you’re trapped inside yourself.’
Posted by Salmon Abiodun