To make this make more sense, let me mention a few cases of real-life people who were reportedly affected by Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS).
Leanne Rowe, a citizen of Australia got into a car accident, broke a jaw, couldn’t speak efficiently for a while but when she finally spoke well, she sounded french instead of Australian.
Julie Matthias, a Citizen of Uk also traces the cause of her foreign accent syndrome to a car accident that caused her a serious migraine. She had a British accent but started sounding Chinese or French after the incident.
Michelle Myers, is a Lady from Arizona whose case is no different from the cases I have identified earlier. She also slept and woke up with a foreign accent; her situation is quite interesting because she’s woken up with three different accents progressively. The first case recorded of her was when she woke up with an Australian accent and then an Irish accent which both lasted for two weeks, then she finally woke up with a brutish accent after a migraine that’s stuck with her up till today unlike the other two that disappeared.
Karen Butler had been in the hospital for a while after a dental surgery. Her gums grew sore and were swollen as a result of this surgery which made speaking a little difficult for her at that time. When she finally was able to speak, she had a different accent than her Native American accent; sometimes she sounded Irish and other times she sounded like some accents in Europe. Her Doctor thought she would talk normally again when her gums finally heal, but it apparently didn’t go as presumed because she continued talking with a strange or foreign accent even after her gums became healed completely.
The things each person mentioned above here, all have a thing in common which is that they all developed a foreign accent overnight. They have been cases of people who went into a coma or stroke too and woke up speaking a whole new language fluently, I mean a language they have never spoken before :) - A Croatian teenager gets into a coma and wakes up speaking German, the craziest part is that she forgets how to speak Croatian but speaks German fluently.
I would want to compare this to that time in the Bible where Christians were baptized by the Holy ghosts and they started speaking fluently in languages they had never spoken before but I won’t because they didn’t forget their language in the process just like this teenager did. Quite crazy and scary at the same time.
What Exactly is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
Most of the cases I mentioned above are cases of people who had severe migraines, got into a car accident, slept and woke up with a Foreign Accent. Well, it’s not just the migraines; The part of this individual’s brain which controls linguistics, phonetics and intonation are affected causing a disorder in the speech of that individual.
Leanne Rowe and Julie Matthias both woke up with a foreign accent from a car accident. Michelle Myers acquired a foreign accent after having migraines and Karen Butler had a dental surgery to acquire a foreign Accent. Those of us who are quite familiar with this condition would be so eager to ask me why I couldn’t mention a case of the most popular cause of this accent -Stroke; Well, I couldn’t forget that important note.
Most people reported to be affected by FAS had the causes of their predicament traced by to strokes (Mostly strokes) and migraines. Just like Tiffany Roberts and Cindy Langdon, who both had strokes and woke up with foreign accents. Tiffany sounded British but had never visited the United Kingdom before and Cindy sounded French but has only visited France once in her life and clearly does not speak or understand French.
A doctor in a Providence stroke center (Dr. Ted Lowenkopf of Portland) in Oregon said that the reason why this condition is so rare is that the part of the brain which controls speech and basically an individual’s phonetics is relatively small and the probability of hurting this small area is very slim.
What causes Foreign Accent Syndrome and how do you know that someone suffers from FAS?
I have mentioned the major cause of FAS earlier in this article but I’ll re-phrase and point it out, Stroke or brain injury is the major cause of foreign accent syndrome. Multiple Sclerosis, migraine, anesthesia and conversion disorder can also be regarded as the minor causes of foreign accent syndrome.
There is a spot (in the Broca’s area of the brain) in the brain that when hit or hurt causes an individual to speak with an accent that’s perceived to be a foreign accent to the untrained ears. This spot is relatively small and is located in the left hemisphere of the brain. This spot controls the articulation of speech by controlling of the lip and tongue muscle; when this spot is altered speaking or pronunciation of words in the way the speaker used to pronounce words become difficult.
People who suffer from FAS find it very hard to pronounce vowels in the normal way they are supposed to pronounce it with respect to their native region. Vowels are the major alphabets that really distinguishes the different accents in the world. If the vowels are not pronounced in their native way, it sounds foreign to the native listener.
Also, when the spot in the Borca’s area is hurt by the cause of stroke, migraine, brain injury etc in the brain of an individual he or she would have the tendency of slowing down, fastening or the pronunciation of words and speeches. This too is a reason for the sound you may likely hear and call a foreign accent. The fascinating part of this syndrome is that an individual with FAS may sound different to different ears; An individual with FAS may sound Irish to one ear and sound British or even Chinese to another ear.
What effect does Foreign Accent Syndrome have on our social lives
Foreign accent syndrome may sound fun you know. I personally would love to get a migraine and wake up with a British accent :)...Don’t get me wrong ..I appreciate my accent and roots but it’ll be fun. Well, it’s all fun and jokes until you sleep with a German accent and wake up with an American or Israeli accent during the World War II and vice versa; You know what that means with the war going at that time? You’ll sound like a Nazi (Germans) when you’re American and would need a lot of convincing to stay safe because you equally can’t speak German to stay safe on the other side. I don’t have to tell you what would go on in your social life I’m guessing you already know it will be hell.
In 1941, during World War II, Astrid, a Norwegian woman had brain injury due to a raid leading to explosions which caused her head to be injured and her brain was literally exposed. She recovered from this injury but was later diagnosed with Foreign accent syndrome in 1943 because this brain injury made her to have an usually strong German accent.
This wasn’t close to fun for her as she was mistaken as German in different occasions and the Norwegians didn’t like the German, this made them(people who do not know her) treat her differently from others. Her social life was basically a mess, no one wanted to associate with her and didn’t want to believe all the explanations she had to give to feel at home; all ignoring the fact that she spoke fluent Norwegian and stuck to the fact that she spoke it with a German accent.
Other people suffering from FAS have also shared similar stories where they lost friends because their friends thought they were being fake and also lying in the process and it became awkward between them. Some formerly fluent English speakers who developed FAS also shared stories where people in supermarkets, buses etc asked them if they could speak English and tried to give assistance that they didn’t really need which made them feel very isolated and sad ; you know the feeling of being treated as a stranger in your own home town ? Well, I hope you can agree with me that it’s not all fun right now.
This is a difficult condition to deal with if you don’t have the right people to help you through the process. Small support groups have been created to help understand the condition and also provide support and therapies for those affected by the syndrome.
Is this condition treatable? How is it diagnosed?
Some people who acquire foreign accent syndrome had been reported to lose it and speak again with their native tongue but sadly that’s not the case for everyone because, for some people, they have to live life with this totally new accent. Generally, there is no stated cure for FAS; you may get lucky and lose it somehow but if you want to manage it you can start going for counseling, speech therapy and probably assimilation (where you’d have to move to the country who’s accent you adopted to avoid feeling socially isolated and stressed out ).
An individual would need a Speech-language pathologist, Psychologist, Neurologist, Neuropsychologist to get a complete or accurate diagnosis of the condition. The family history of the individual is assessed, the individual’s lip and face muscles are examined and these specialists run a language test on the individual to be sure of the condition.
The language of an individual is assessed using different test procedures like scanning of the brain ; taking pictures of the brain by adoption of CT scanning, checking the blood flow in the brain using Single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scan, recording the brain’s activity using electrical current by the adoption of Electroencephalogram (EEG) test.
How can you avoid waking up with a foreign accent? Is it exclusive to any age, race or nation?
Foreign accent syndrome can be avoided by avoiding strokes and migraines as this is the major risk factors associated with the condition. I am not saying that once you get a stroke or a migraine you would get FAS - I am just saying you are at a higher risk of getting this extremely rare syndrome if you suffer from a stroke or a migraine.
Avoiding strokes and migraines is basically staying and eating healthy, little to zero abuse of drugs, regular checkup of your blood pressure, avoiding excessive smoking and drinking and also trying to exercise our body to stay fit. This condition is no respecter of age, race, sex or nationality; it can affect anyone. It is more prevalent in adults because they have a higher risks of suffering a stroke or migraines than children.
Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) may sound like a very minor syndrome or disorder compared to other disorders but it equally needs the attention other kinds of the disorder are getting. Most people who suffer from this condition do not find it fun or amusing the way some of us (listeners) do. The stories that people who suffer from this condition shared show that, they experience self-confidence crises when they speak, as they are not sure of how they are going to sound to their listeners.
They also suffer social anxiety and stress which comes from the trauma of not being able to sound like their old self. Just like the case of Astrid in 1941, sufferers of this condition often experience social isolation in their own hometown from people who are not familiar with them. The thought that this condition can last with them forever, and unlearned people mocking their new accent could lead to depression.
We should try to understand people diagnosed with this condition and even try to encourage them through their journey as it’s not as easy as you think it is with sufferers of this condition.