Ben McMahon learned the basics of Chinese at high school but he was nowhere near fluent. Then, in 2015, Ben was riding in a car that got t-boned by a truck and was rushed to hospital. When he woke from an induced coma a week later he was frustrated to find that no one could understand him, except for a Chinese nurse.
Over the next week Ben realised that when he opened his mouth to communicate with his family, friends, and doctors, it was Chinese that was coming out. He didn’t fumble or hesitate when he spoke—he just articulated his inner dialogue, which had mysteriously switched from English to Chinese.
We interviewed Ben for our podcast “Extremes.” What follows here is a condensed version of that interview, where we spoke about what had likely occurred in Ben’s brain and whether it was destiny that put him in that car accident. In Ben's eyes, he was destined to become fluent in Chinese, move to China, and ultimately appear on the world’s most-viewed dating show.
VICE: Hey Ben, let’s start right with the car accident. What happened that day?
Ben McMahon: Well I don’t remember the accident because I was completely knocked out, but what I was told was that a big semi-trailer truck ran a red light and smashed into the side of the car. The accident fractured all my sternum, rib bones, and I had a major concussion and was put into a coma for about a week. Then waking up was a big blur because there were two weeks in which I was going in and out of consciousness, but I remember there was a Chinese nurse, and as I regained consciousness the first words that came out of my mouth were fluent Chinese. And the nurse was quite taken aback, and went out to tell my parents.
What did your parents think?
Well the nurse told my parents “your son has woken up from the coma but... he’s speaking Chinese.” And so of course my parents were over the moon, you know, their son was alive—but they were kind of worried that they’d have to learn Chinese to communicate with me.
So you didn’t realise you were speaking Chinese?
No, I had no idea. It wouldn’t matter if I was speaking with the nurse, doctors, or people that came into the room, or my parents and brother. It was just the most natural thing that came out of my mouth.
What was your Chinese like before the accident?
I could have basic conversations with people but I wasn’t fluent. But then, after the accident, my internal monologue, the voice that kind of speaks to you in your head, that just switched. And so from that moment onwards it just became so much more natural and so much more fluent, there was no first thinking English then translating to Chinese and speaking, it was just straight Chinese.
Were there any theories from neurologists or maybe psychologists about how a coma had affected your language skills?
Yeah, one of the theories was that for English speakers, most of our language memory is on the left side of the brain. But for some reason Chinese speakers use both hemispheres of the brain more than, say, your average English speaker. And I received most of the impact on the left side, so that side needed to rest and repair itself. Potentially what then happened is the brain went “okay, the left side needs to go into more rest, let’s shift the language activity over to the right side.” And for that reason maybe Chinese became more natural.
How long were you in hospital for?
It took about a week to differentiate between the languages. I realised I had to speak English to my parents and brother, but then I had other people I could speak Chinese with. Then from the coma to differentiating between languages and getting home, it was maybe a month.
Right so you got home, took up language lessons, then what happened?
Well then I had the opportunity to be on If You Are The One, which was literally my favourite show in China. It’s a date show, it’s the biggest date show in the world. Eighty million people tune into every episode and what happens is they get 24 girls who stand on stage, and then one male contestant comes out, one by one. So you’re on stage for about an hour and the girls grill you with questions. They ask stuff like “What’s your family background? Do you have a car? Do you have a house? What do you do? What are your hobbies?” and really, really kind of drill you to see if are you what they’re looking for.
When they presented your backstory on the show did they cover the bit about how you’d learned Chinese via a coma?
No, I don’t think the directors even knew. They obviously didn’t do their background research.
No, apparently not. So how did you try to look impressive on the show?
Well I bought Tim Tams and gave Tim Tams to all the girls, which they loved. That was the first big tick. And then the next thing I did was play them a Chinese song on a mandolin.
Nice! So did you find love?
Well, one of the girls gave me the equivalent of a super-like. We kept in touch for about a month, and then she came down to Melbourne. We had one date, but then we both realised pretty quickly that we weren’t suitable for each other.
That’s a bummer, but let’s move on. Now, I imagine you wouldn’t condone the idea of going through a car accident to learn a language, but do you have advice to anyone who really wants to learn Chinese?
Yeah. Definitely not an accident. Like, I nearly died! I nearly died! The most important thing with language is to find a passion for it. Like a deep love for the language will make you want to study. Also just don’t be afraid to have a go. The best foreign Chinese speakers aren’t necessarily the smartest people, they’re just people who aren’t afraid to speak. They just love to speak with Chinese friends, and chat to people on the street and to taxi drivers.
I want to go back to this idea of fate or destiny. Do you believe in it?
Yeah 100 percent. The Chinese talk about this thing called Mìngyùn which is like fate that brings two people together. It’s generally romantic, but it can also be like the fate that brought me and China together. I’ve been kind of directed in this way towards China and I’ve got this deep, burning passion for the country that I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for the accident. I just think fate dictates the direction you go.
If you hadn’t gone through a coma, do you think you’d still have your fascination with China?
Probably not. If the accident didn’t happen, and I didn’t wake up from the coma then I probably might not have gone to China again. Then I might not have gone on the date show. You know it’s like if you’re on a boat, if you just change direction by just a millimetre you can end up in a completely different area. So I think it would be a very different story if I hadn’t had the accident.
In some ways are you glad that the accident happened?
I don’t think anyone is glad about, you know, nearly dying and being in a coma for a week. But I’m very thankful and grateful that I woke up, and some really good things came of it.