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Foreign Accent Syndrome

August 15th, 2018

Imagine that you sound like a foreigner in your native language, even if you have never travelled to that particular country. It is possible due to the Foreign Accent Syndrome – FAS. People suffering from FAS are able to speak easily and without anxiety and they are able to be fully understood. The obtained accent could be within the same language, eg. such as American-English to British-English; or between two completely different languages (e.g. Norwegian and German).

Foreign accent syndrome is an extremely rare disorder. The person’s speech patterns, including intonation and vocals pronunciation are changed due to a brain injury. The majority of the cases are due to a stroke, but some are preceded by a trauma, returning migraines, or developmental problems. According to Peter Marien, neuropsychology professor at University of Antwerp, there are around 63 documented cases of this syndrome. The first known case was reported in 1941. A Norwegian woman suffered injuries during a German bombing run, and it resulted in starting speaking with a German accent in Norwegian. Another, more recent case concerns an Australian woman, who obtains French accent in English after a car crash. There many more examples: an American woman speaks English with British accent after her jaw surgery, or a woman from Devon, UK, who obtained Chinese accent as a result of her migraines.

Yet, the disease sometimes concerns a change not only in the accent, but the whole language! The most recent case happened two months ago – a 16-year-old American, Rueben Nsemoh, who knew just a few words of Spanish, woke from a coma speaking this language fluently. “It started flowing out,” says Nsemoh. “I felt like it was like second nature for me. I wasn’t speaking my English right, and every time I tried to speak it I would have a seizure.” Another case like that concerns Michael Boatwright, U.S. Navy vet, who was found unconscious in a hotel room in Florida. After he regained consciousness, he was able to speak only Swedish, and he didn’t recall his identity at all.

Foreign accent syndrome disappears as quickly as it appears. It is especially unusual, because it involves complex mechanisms of speech production. The person’s accent is a marker of personality, origin, culture, class and identity.

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by Gabriela Stępień