Not-so-foreign accent syndrome

Foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is a neurological condition that is acquired following a stroke or some other form of brain injury. It occurs as a result of damage to the brain's speech motor centres, so that syllables are mispronounced, making one sound as if they are speaking their native language in a foreign accent.

FAS is extremely rare, with only around 50 reported cases since 1941. Two of these were reported in stroke victims in recent years: Linda Walker, a 62-year-old woman from Newcastle, began speaking in an accent that was described as a mixture of Jamaican, Canadian and Slovakian, whereas Tiffany Roberts, a 63-year-old American, began speaking in what sounds like a British accent.

Neurologists from Toronto now report the first Canadian case study of the condition. Writing in this month's issue of the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, Naidoo et al describe the case of a stroke patient named Rosemary Dore, who previously had a native Southern Ontario accent, but is now speaking with an East Coast Canadian accent, despite never having lived in that part of the country.

The authors of the study told journalists:

Instead of saying 'that' and 'this' she was saying 'dat' and 'diss' at least some of the time. So the 'ths' were turning into 'ds' and 'ts' and her vowels were really changing so they were getting really elongated.

While the new accent was apparent to the woman's family, the woman could not detect the changes herself. Despite intensive speech therapy, the new accent persists, even two years later.

Her speech is perfectly clear, unlike most stroke victims who have damage to speech-motor areas of the brain. You wouldn't guess that the speech changes are the result of a stroke.

Most people meeting her for the first time assume she is from out East. What we are seeing in this case is a change in some of the very precise mechanisms of speech-motor planning in the brain's circuitry.

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Foreign accent syndrome is probably not as rare as you might think from case reports. I've seen 3 cases post-stroke in the past 13 years, out of probably 900 patients. No-one has done a survey to look at incidence, which would be interesting. It's a good reminder as to how fragile accents are, and how our ears and brain provide detailed acoustic analysis, that we can perceive accents even with a completely common vocabulary.

The interesting thing here is that, of course, they don't develop a foreign accent in any linguistically meaningful sense of the phrase; what happens is that their voices are altered, and the listener's brain attempts to assimilate the sound to the nearest of the available psycholinguistic preconceptions.

My dad is fond of citing a case where a man developed a French accent after a head injury as evidence the French have brain damage. Did anyone ever get an American accent this way?

It would be interesting to look at how systematic the changes are. Whether it is individual phonemes that change at random or the entire phonological system. Also, to test how they discriminate sounds and phonemes as a way to study their phonological representations, because perception is tied to production.

"a French accent after a head injury as evidence the French have brain damage. Did anyone ever get an American accent this way?"

All Americans??

By Rich Beckman (not verified) on 06 Jul 2008 #permalink

I wonder if this syndrome pertains to me. Throughout my life people have asked me what my accent was, where I was from and was I from England while I'm actually a lifelong southern US resident. Lately, more people are commenting on my "accent". Weird. Perhaps the older I get the more pronounced it is becoming.

Almost 3yrs ago, my daughter was at work making SUV parts for a major car company. There was a "Safety Feature Failure" with a Robot that struck her in the head attached with a piece of steel as the finish product. I was told by a "Miracle" that the robot didn't cut head clean off, Thank God it didn't! she was in the hospital for over 3 months. Now she speaks with an accent, my grandkids says "she sounds Hispanic" others say "from the Islands" she says "I just sound funny" and get really upset & depressed when asked about it. She will never fully recover after her Closed Head Injury & these Doctor's aren't giving her the help she really needs. Oh yeah,her job fired her with no benefits including medical & blamed her for their mistakes. She needs help outside of Alabama!!!!

I have bipolar disorder, but back when a doctor misdiagnosed me and put me on an extremely high dose of an SSRI, people started asking me if I was from Germany. I'm from Chicago, as are my parents and grandparents.
Some people refuse to believe I was born in this country. That's when situations get embarrassing. People think I'm from Germany, Russia, Australia, England, Switzerland, etc. The accent didn't go away after I stopped the SSRI.
I went to speech therapy, they just told me my prosody had somehow gotten messed up, gave me exercises to work on that... my voice is somewhat better...
Fleta, I'm sorry to hear about your daughter's accident. Maybe her issue is with prosody too?