Foreign accent syndrome is a very rare speech disorder which causes a person to speak with a non-native or different regional accent. In this article, Ronak Mahdavi Jovainy explains the symptoms and impact of this condition, referencing notable cases.
This medical condition differs from when a person spends a significant amount of time in another country, or region within the same country, and develops the accent of that area. It is possible for someone with foreign accent syndrome to begin speaking with an accent that they have not previously been exposed to.
How is it caused?
Foreign accent syndrome is caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls the rhythm and melody of speech. The damage is most commonly caused by:
- Brain trauma
- Bleeding in the brain
- Multiple sclerosis
- A brain tumour
Symptoms of foreign accent syndrome
Your natural accent is something that you unconsciously learn when growing up, through a system of sound patterns in your native language. This is known as your phonetic system and is unlikely to change following your teenage years.
Foreign accent syndrome can not only cause a person to speak with a different accent, but can also result in them speaking with a distorted rhythm and tone. For example, vowel sounds may be extended so that the English word ‘yeah’ will be spoken as the German ‘jah’.
When we speak, we naturally use rising and falling tones to emphasise different parts of a specific word. People with foreign accent syndrome still use rising and falling tones, but there are some subtle differences. A common example is using rising and falling tones more frequently and even doing so with every word in a sentence.
A person living with foreign accent syndrome may be able to speak easily and have others understand them. People with foreign accent syndrome may not directly replicate the accent that their speech most resembles, but the change tends to be consistent. The different accent they adopt may be within the same language as their own, for example American-English to British-English. It is rare for the ‘adopted’ accent to switch or to be present intermittently.
How long will it last and can it be cured?
The time period of this disorder varies from person to person. For some it may last for months or years, while for others the effects may be permanent.
Treatment for foreign accent syndrome is limited, in part because the condition is so rare. Any treatment will largely depend on the underlying cause: if there are no underlying conditions, it is possible to treat to some extent with speech therapy. Speech therapy helps those living with foreign accent syndrome to learn how to recreate and return to their previous accent through vocal exercises. These exercises are usually targeted at pronouncing sounds deliberately in your ‘normal’ accent.
Much of the treatment for foreign accent syndrome is targeted at helping those with the condition deal with the impact on their lives. People often engage with counselling, therapy or support groups to help them cope with any issues in their lives that result from foreign accent syndrome. The therapies can include behavioural therapy strategies to help people cultivate positive and healthy habits and to combat negative or destructive thoughts, feelings or habits.
Noteworthy foreign accent syndrome cases
There have been approximately 100 diagnosed cases of foreign accent syndrome since it was first identified in 1907. There have been a much greater number of reported cases of this condition in women compared to men, and cases are largely reported between the ages of 25 and 45.
One of the earliest and most well-known cases of foreign accent syndrome dates back to the Second World War. Whilst the exact circumstances are unknown, a Norwegian woman sustained brain damage and right-sided paralysis after being hit with shrapnel. The brain damage caused the woman to develop foreign accent syndrome and she began to speak with a German accent. She was ostracised by her community in Norway as a result.
In 2011, a woman living in the UK was involved in a car accident and sustained a head injury. Following the accident, she endured blinding migraines and severe pain in her body. A few months after having painful episodes of migraines and debilitating body pain, she noticed that her voice had begun to change. She worked in a beauty salon at the time and found that clients would speak to her as if she did not understand English. The woman had begun to speak with an accent that others identified as French or Chinese.
It is also possible for foreign accent syndrome to develop as a result of certain mental health conditions. There has been a reported case in the US of a woman who had a history of paranoid schizophrenia. She often acted aggressively and would attack people, including her partner’s father. During these episodes, the American woman would begin speaking with a British accent. She had also later attacked her mother’s landlady, claiming that the landlady was cursing her and performing voodoo on her. The woman’s previous experiences of foreign accent syndrome were temporary and only lasted for the duration of her psychotic episodes, but her British accent remained following the attack on the landlady.
The impact of foreign accent syndrome
People living with foreign accent syndrome often report feeling misunderstood by those around them, and say they are not taken seriously. Some have shared experiences of other people taking their condition as a joke and focusing only on them speaking with a different or ‘funny’ accent. For people living with this condition, it is not a laughing matter. Many fail to see the impact of the disorder on the person that is actually living with it.
People living with foreign accent syndrome describe feeling as though they have lost their identity because they no longer sound like themselves, and there is no known sure-fire way to get their original accent back. Patients have reported feeling marginalised in their native country and losing the sense of belonging within it.
Some people with foreign accent syndrome have said they find it difficult to see their own reflection in a mirror, particularly if they were to speak whilst looking at their own reflection. Accents can consciously or subconsciously be used to portray who we are and where we come from, therefore it is unsurprising that many people with foreign accent syndrome feel like they have lost themselves and their identity.
One woman described dealing with her new accent as feeling like she had been bereaved and lost a good friend. Another woman with foreign accent syndrome reported that even when she was alone at home, she had a feeling that there was a stranger in her house whenever she spoke out loud.
Foreign accent syndrome has a significant emotional impact. If you put yourself in the shoes of someone living with the condition, is it really so surprising that they feel so lonely, isolated and scared?
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