Foreign Accent Syndrome

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Is there such a thing as Foreign Accent Syndrome?

Foreign accents are intriguing.  Many of us adopted accents while playing with friends as children, and actors do it all the time (some with more success than others).  Imagine, however, that rather than affecting an accent for fun, you wake up one day and sound like a native of a foreign country – like you grew up speaking a different language.  Additionally, you cannot help but speak this way, and you are doing nothing to make it happen!

This phenomenon is called Foreign Accent Syndrome – a rare but very real neurological disorder.  Foreign Accent Syndrome is not the same thing as Foreign Language Syndrome – an ailment which has anecdotal stories but has not been proven to exist.  With Foreign Language Syndrome, the person asserts that he woke up one day, possibly out of a coma, possibly after an accident or even out of the blue, and began speaking an entirely different language than he used to – fluently.  Foreign Accent Syndrome does not involve speaking in a different language, and it has been documented as a medical case, but it is extremely rare.  In fact, this disorder is so rare that, according to the Daily Mail, there were only “61 cases confirmed between 1941 and 2012.”

What is Foreign Accent Syndrome?  

Foreign Accent Syndrome Symptoms and Signs

Foreign Accent Syndrome is marked by an altered speech pattern that sounds noticeably different from the way the person formerly spoke.  According to the University of Texas at Dallas, “speech may be altered in terms of timing, intonation, and tongue placement so that is perceived as sounding foreign. Speech remains highly intelligible and does not necessarily sound disordered.”

Unlike other language symptoms of brain injury like aphasia (a complication resulting in difficulty understanding language and expressing verbally) and apraxia (which effects the ability to “make sounds, syllables, and words,” according to Mount Sinai Hospital), individuals suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome are clearly understood and retain the ability to use language.

To call this disease Foreign Accent Syndrome may be misleading in that, while the person may form vowels and consonants in a way that mimics a foreign accent, it is not as if every word the person speaks is strictly limited to, for example, a British dialect.  The word “accent” is used mostly as a way to describe the way others hear the person with the affliction speak.  For example, the speaker may:

  • Have trouble with consonant clusters;
  • Put stress on syllables contrary to how he would if he was speaking “normally;”
  • Begin words with the wrong consonant sound; and
  • Insert the “uh” sound into words when it should not be there.

People with Foreign Accent Syndrome may be described as using one specific accent, but more often than not the “accent” is really a mixture of a distortion of speech that blends together to create the impression of a foreign accent.

Potential Causes of Foreign Accent Syndrome

Since not much is known about Foreign Accent Syndrome, it is not surprising that not much is known about what causes it.  Foreign Accent Syndrome can be a result of:

  • Stroke (the most common cause);
  • Brain trauma;
  • Brain hemorrhage;
  • Multiple Sclerosis; and
  • a brain tumor.

Oddly, there have been documented cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome without any of the above conditions present.  In 2010, a woman in the U.K. woke up after a terrible migraine with a Chinese sounding accent.  Doctors cannot say for certain whether or not the migraine was the cause of the sudden, new accent, but the condition and the change in speech was very real.  In another case, a woman in Oregon woke up from dental surgery with what her friends and co-workers describe as an “Eastern European, Swedish, or British Accent.”  Overall, however, stroke is the number one factor.

Living with Foreign Accent Syndrome

It might seem funny to think about one day sounding to others like you were raised in a foreign country, but unfortunately, suffers of Foreign Accent Syndrome have a lot to deal with.  There is an uncertainty in terms of how much damage the brain has actually undergone to bring on these symptoms.  There is the shock of sounding totally different than you are used to sounding.  And there is also the doubt of even close family and friends that the new foreign sounding accent is not just made up or all in your head.

Like many neurological ailments, it is sometimes hard to diagnose the exact issue, and even harder to treat.  Most neurologists agree that people with this strange disease are definitely not making it up, but there is no defining test to discover what is making the speaker affect an accent, nor is there a specific part of the brain that is damaged in every person with Foreign Accent Syndrome.

Treating Foreign Accent Syndrome

Because Foreign Accent Syndrome is rare and therefore not widely understood, there is no hard and fast cure for the disease.  There are ways to mitigate the symptoms of Foreign Accent Syndrome, however.

1.  Speech Therapy.  Speech therapists are not just for children who cannot pronounce words correctly.  Speech therapists and speech pathologists can help a person struggling with Foreign Accent Syndrome discover new ways of moving their lips and tongues to produce sounds and words differently.  Speech therapists can teach the speaker ways to relax certain muscles in the mouth while developing strategies to compensate for the movements the person’s mouth may no longer be able to make.

2.  Psychological Therapy.  Living with a rare disease that not even doctors fully understand would be difficult.  The stress of speaking to others in a voice that is not your own could make the condition worse.  Working with a counselor to help talk about the emotional side of this ailment may help relieve stress, thereby making it easier to cope with the disease and take steps toward regaining former patterns of speech.

3.  Medication.  There is not a medication that is prescribed specifically for Foreign Accent Syndrome, however if a doctor believes that the Foreign Accent Syndrome causes could be related to Multiple Sclerosis or migraines, it is possible that some medications may help when combined with speech and psychological therapy.

Preventing Foreign Accent Syndrome

Believe it or not, Foreign Accent Syndrome is real.  If you watch a Foreign Accent Syndrome video you can see for yourself that the person speaking does not appear to be consciously forming words a certain way.  And if you are one of the very few people that believe you may suffer from this disease, it is best to be examined by a doctor.  While Foreign Accent Syndrome is obviously not a disease that one needs to worry about contracting, there are things a person can do to try and prevent ever having to deal with this disease:

1.  Exercise regularly.   Exercise reduces the risk of stroke, the leading cause of Foreign Accent Syndrome.

2.  Get plenty of rest.  Getting enough rest is important to lower stress and keep your body healthy.

3.  Do not skip your yearly physical.  Doctors are better trained to see signs of disease and problems in advance.  With regular checkups, you reduce the risk of complications in the future by identifying worrying symptoms sooner.

4.  Do not use drugs.  Besides generally being bad for you, drugs can alter your brain and cause permanent damage, which has the potential to lead to Foreign Accent Syndrome.

Foreign Accent Syndrome finds itself on many “world’s weirdest and strangest diseases” lists.  The human brain is an amazing and complex organ, and doctors discover new ways the brain works every day.  Foreign Accent Syndrome is another quirk of biology that both mystifies and excites doctors and scientists to not only learn more about the brain, but develop ways to help those suffering from disease.

 

 

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