I had never heard of foreign accent syndrome until recently. I happened to be watching an episode of 60 minutes with three women who were interviewed regarding their experience of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS). Believe it or not, this is a real medical condition where patients develop speech patterns that are perceived as a foreign accent.
Foreign accent syndrome can happen after a head injury, stroke or other types of brain damage. Although it is a rare condition, it has happened to around 100 people since it first became known in 1907.
One of the women interviewed on 60 Minutes was an Australian woman who developed a French sounding accent after a car accident. Another case involved a woman America who woke up one day with a mixture of Australian, British and Irish accents. Her only symptom was falling asleep with a headache the night before.
Foreign accent syndrome can happen to anyone irrespective of your native language
Foreign accent syndrome seems to relate two conditions that affect and damage the Broca’s area of the brain. This is the area of the brain that typically produces speech.
Symptoms of foreign accent syndrome
We naturally pick up tones and accents as we grow up by listening to others around us. This is called your phonetic system. Researchers find foreign accent syndrome especially puzzling because most of us have a fixed phonetic system by our late teens. There have been cases in the past of children growing up with wild animals and if they pass that window of opportunity, the brain loses its capacity to learn language.
Although foreign accent syndrome may sound quite bizarre and perhaps even comical it can be incredibly distressing for a person to speak completely differently to the way they would normally sound. Foreign accent syndrome can have severe psychological consequences and can interfere with an individual’s identity.
The prognosis for foreign accent syndrome
Many causes of FAS are not curable, in most cases a doctor will prescribe speech therapy to help a person regain their normal habits. For one British woman, her experience of Foreign Accent Syndrome was particularly difficult. Despite having lived in the UK her whole life, Julie Matthias suddenly found that she no longer spoke with an English accent -sounding French or Chinese instead. People spoke to her as if she did not understand English.
Imagine waking up and no longer sounding like the person you really are, that must be pretty disturbing.
Foreign Accent Syndrome shows how complicated and interesting the brain is. Nick Miller, at Newcastle University, explains that are accents mark our social class, education level and many other traits that allow others to make judgements about us.
Miller, along with Jack Ryalls, of the University of Central Florida, recently compiled a book day detailing these experiences, called Foreign Accent Syndrome: the stories people have to tell.
Foreign accent syndrome must be a life-altering experience and shows how we all have to cope with all sorts of unusual experiences in life.