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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 talk about it this way, and you are doing nothing to make it happen!
This phenomenon is called Foreign Accent Syndrome – a rare but genuine neurological disorder. Foreign Accent Syndrome is not the same thing as Foreign Language Syndrome – an ailment with 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 scarce. According to the Daily Mail, this disorder is so rare that 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 how the person formerly spoke. According to the University of Texas at Dallas , “Who may alter speech in terms of timing, intonation, and tongue placement, so that is perceived as sounding foreign. However, speech remains highly intelligible and does not necessarily sound disordered.”
Unlike other language symptoms of a brain injury like aphasia (a complication resulting in difficulty understanding language and expressing verbally) and apraxia (which affects 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. While the person may form vowels and consonants that mimic a foreign accent, it is not as if every word the person speaks is strictly limited to, for example, a British dialect. The term “accent” is used chiefly to describe how 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 saying “normally.”
- Begin words with the wrong consonant sound; and
- Insert the “uh” sound into comments 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 a mixture of a distortion of speech that blends 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. For example, in 2010, a woman in the U.K. woke up after a terrible migraine with a Chinese-sounding accent. Doctors cannot say whether or not the migraine was the cause of the sudden, new accent, but the condition and the change in the speech were genuine.
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 from Foreign Accent Syndrome have a lot to deal with. First, there is uncertainty about how much damage the brain has undergone to bring on these symptoms.
Second, there is the shock of sounding 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.
It is sometimes hard to diagnose the exact issue and even harder to treat, like many neurological ailments. However, most neurologists agree that people with this strange disease are not making it up. Still, there is no defining test to discover what makes 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 is therefore poorly understood, there isn’t a quick and straightforward cure for the condition. There are methods to lessen some of the signs and symptoms associated with Foreign Accent Syndrome, however.
- Speech Therapy . Speech therapists do not only work for children who are unable to say words adequately. Speech pathologists and speech therapists can aid those suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome discover new ways to move their tongues and lips to make words and sounds differently. Speech therapists can show the patient ways to relax specific muscles within the mouth and develop strategies to accommodate the movements that the person’s mouth may not perform.
- Psychological Therapy. A rare condition that doctors do not are aware of could be complex. The pressure of talking to people in a manner that isn’t your own can make the situation more complicated. Talking with a counselor to discuss the emotional aspects of the condition can alleviate stress, helping you cope with the state and work towards regaining the old speech habits.
- Medicine. No medication is specifically prescribed in the treatment of Foreign Accent Syndrome; however, should a doctor believe there is a possibility that Foreign Accent Syndrome causes could be linked with Multiple Sclerosis or migraines, it’s possible that certain medicines can help with psychotherapy and speech.
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 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 essential 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 a unique 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 learn more about the brain and develop ways to help those suffering from the disease.