‘The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese’ (BBC1) Review

In March 2010, Sarah Colwill, from Plymouth, was rushed to hospital after suffering a severe migraine. When she woke up, she found that she had lost her Devon accent and now sounded Chinese.

This incident has plagued her life ever since. Even major experts cannot determine what exactly happened to Sarah on that day in 2010, or whether the migraine even has any relevance to her losing her Plymouth lilt. She has, however, been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome, something which only around 150 people in the world have.

This documentary told Sarah’s story, and saw her set out to discover why her accent changed, and if there is any way that she can get it back.

I was intrigued by The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese (I mean it’s a very compelling title, isn’t it?), so I was eager to watch the programme and find out how Sarah (pictured) had come to wake up with this accent, and how she dealt with it. Both of my queries were answered within minutes: that of how it happened I have already detailed, but her reaction to her accent really surprised me. Perhaps I’m naive for not expecting her to have had her life ruined by her new accent but I’d never expected it to be that way. However, the gravity of the situation and huge adverse effect that it has had on Sarah’s life were clear from the start, when she was seen in tears in her living room, saying, ‘It’s just been such [a] horrible thing to go through.’

What has made the ordeal particularly ‘horrible’ for Sarah is the fact that people don’t understand it. Indeed, as I said, even top experts in the field cannot fathom what happened to her brain to bring about this change. It’s not just the lack of understanding regarding the science of the change which frustrates Sarah, though: it is the ignorance of others. When she dines at Chinese restaurants, staff apparently think she is mocking them, as she is Caucasian but her accent would suggest otherwise. She claims that she is also spoken to by people in shops and in the street as if she is a tourist, despite having lived in the UK throughout her life.

It seems that there is a gross lack of understanding and ignorance on social media, too. When the documentary aired, I searched ‘Woman Who Woke Up Chinese’ on Twitter and at first was pleasantly surprised to see that there were some sympathetic and supportive tweets, commenting on how tragic Sarah’s story was. But then the majority of the rest were the antithesis of these: people were apparently ‘dying laughing’ at Sarah’s plight and someone even suggested that she just stop speaking Chinese, and her problem would be ‘sorted’. God help them.

The fact is that Sarah didn’t just have a headache, go to sleep, wake up and start speaking in a Chinese accent. She has had to struggle, as have her family, to come to terms with this drastic change. The experience was heartbreaking for her. As anyone who watched the programme properly will have realised, she desperately wanted to rediscover her old life. She even contacted an insurance company to enquire about being sent some recordings of phone conversations she’d had with them, so that she could hear her old voice. When she received the recordings, they were palpably difficult for her husband in particular to listen to, showing that is not just her who was affected by this: her whole family were too. She met doctors, partook in tests, underwent brain scans – all while still suffering from her crippling migraines, which she has around ten times a month – and only managed to learn the English pronunciations of a few words, like ‘chips’ and ‘grandfather’. These seem like very tiny, insignificant achievements to you and me, but to Sarah they were huge leaps forward, and offered a glimmer of hope that she might have her voice returned to how it was before, or at least partly so. This was a major event in her life and people’s blasé attitude, while not unexpected, was terrible.

Of course, I’m not denying that The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese is an odd title, and I even had a bit of a laugh about it when I first read it in the TV listings, but the point is that when I actually sat down and watched it, I could immediately tell that it wasn’t going to be a light-hearted look at a comical occurrence: it was actually quite sad, but overall uplifting as it ended with Sarah being given that aforementioned glimmer of hope. And I wish her all the best. Prior to watching this, I had never heard of Foreign Accent Syndrome, as I’m sure neither had many other people, but following Sarah’s story made me aware of its existence, and how it can ruin a person’s life.

Images thanks to BBC and Abigail Priddle, ©Victory Television

The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese is available on BBC iPlayer until Tuesday 10th September

What did you think of The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Please comment below or tweet me – @UKTVReviewer.

You can also see what’s coming up on TV in the coming week on this blog, published every Saturday at midnight.

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