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What is Foreign Accent Syndrome?

A traumatic brain injury has occurred in many cases of foreign accent syndrome.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
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  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2014
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In 1941, a Norwegian woman's brain was damaged by shrapnel during a German bombing run. As she recovered from the head injury, she began to speak her native Norwegian language in a heavy German accent. Her doctors were at a loss to explain this phenomenon, although some villagers began to suspect the woman of being a German spy or collaborator. She was eventually shunned by her fellow villagers, never regaining her natural Norwegian accent. Her extremely rare condition would enter the medical books as foreign accent syndrome.

Foreign accent syndrome is so rare that most sources report fewer than 20 cases worldwide since 1941. Virtually every case has appeared following a traumatic brain injury, aneurism or stroke. The patient may recover normally from the initial trauma, only to begin speaking with a foreign accent several weeks or months later. Some medical professionals initially suspected that the syndrome was a psychosomatic condition, but further research showed that almost all victims suffered damage in a specific section of the brain that controls language.

Those rare individuals with this condition are often troubled by its unexpected onset. Family, friends and the media may all become fascinated by the sudden accent change, putting a very public face on what should have been a private recovery time. Medical and language researchers may also want to put the patient through a battery of tests. Some patients have been known to recover their original accents, but many do not.

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One theory concerning foreign accent syndrome is that the sufferer is not actually speaking in a foreign accent at all, but the listener assigns one based on inflections and emphasis. Several Americans diagnosed with the condition are said to speak in a British accent, even though they have never visited the United Kingdom and have been raised in areas with strong native accents, such as New York. Some researchers believe the patients are actually speaking a form of damaged English caused by the initial injury to the brain's language center. What listeners perceive as a clipped British accent may in actuality be a slurring of Americanized speech.

Foreign accent syndrome is not considered a life-threatening condition, but those who suffer from it may feel a great deal of social anxiety or suffer from agoraphobia, the fear of crowds and public spaces. Communication is a vital part of anyone's quality of life, so those diagnosed with this condition often feel a sense of frustration when they can no longer recognize their own voices.

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anon937192
Post 15

What if in the middle of class a girl of 15 suddenly starts to speak in a Scottish accent and she doesn't know any Scottish people and has never been there? She even hears her Scottish accent when she types. Would this be this?

anon352598
Post 14

Trust me, the vast majority of Africans (OK, from English-speaking Africa) acquire FAS within a couple of months when they relocate to the western countries (particularly the UK and US).

About 20 cases since 1941? I can give you 2 million, easily.

anon313962
Post 13

I used to think I had FAS, but reading this article has caused me to change my mind. I have always had a bit of a southern accent. However, just this past summer, I spent a lot of time acting with a Scottish accent. I think I spent enough time speaking like that that I have partially rewired my brain. Ever since then, whenever I'm stressed, nervous, or anxious, the accent pops up again. It's not a conscious choice; it just comes and goes as it pleases. I have to physically force myself to begin speaking with my "normal" accent. It makes my friends and family laugh because they think it's a bit to get attention.

I used to think it was FAS, but considering that I have not undergone anything exceedingly traumatic recently, I'm beginning to think otherwise. I guess I'll just have to do a little more digging to find out how to stop the Scottish accent from returning whenever it pleases.

Lyric7264
Post 12

I have suffered from epilepsy for ten years and I now sound like an Aussie-Brit and I am from Philadelphia. I never had any real explanation for it before, and often have been accused of faking it. My mom thinks I am just being "theatrical" and tells me to just talk normally. She even went as far as to say that I should not speak to my daughters while they were learning to talk so they would not sound like me.

It is really frustrating. Most people think it's cool even though it annoys the heck out of me. At first, even I thought I was doing it purposely -- until I tried to stop and couldn't. The accent would just pop right back in without my trying. Reading this has helped me understand a little more about what I am dealing with and I have a better explanation for that constant annoying question, "Hey! You have an accent! Where are you from?"

anon311031
Post 10

Can extreme stress at work cause FAS? Sometimes with me it comes and goes. It is uncomfortable. Others ask what country I am from.

lmjt1969
Post 9

I am so excited to finally find a site that discusses FAS by sufferers of FAS.

I have had FAS for three months and have done my own online research. I acquired FAS after having dental work done in January of this year. I have completed medical tests, psychological tests and MRI and MRA tests and nothing was found.

I am in California and am having a difficult time locating actual non-media information. Can anyone help me? Is there a national or state specific support group?

Sometimes it's fun to talk differently and my kids have a good time asking me to say words that they know I can't say, but honestly it has taken its toll on my relationships, both in the work place and socially. People who know me said at first that I was faking it but now that it has been three months find it amazing. Others I meet are fascinated and want to know where I am from, which is embarrassing because I just went to the dentist.

I hope more research can be done. I am willing to put myself and my experience on the line in order for others to learn non-injury incidents of acquiring FAS. We don't know if it will go away and I'm actually used to it now but it has its moments. Everybody take care.

nc1234
Post 8

I am a woman 50 years of age who has had foreign accent syndrome for eight years. Everyone around me thought I was faking my accent at first. I suffered a stroke and have never spoken the same since. At first, it used to bother me because everyone wanted to know where I was from when I told them I am from the USA. I would always get questioned about it.

The most frustrating thing that has ever happened to me is I was trying to get a photo ID from the state where I lived. I went to the DMV with my birth certificate and social security card and they accused me of bringing false documents and would not give me one.

I am so happy to see I am not alone. If people would just look it up on the internet they will see I have no control of what comes out. I am a southern girl who now speaks with a European or German Russian accent. I am the same person I was born to be 50 years ago. My speech has been altered, not by me, but by a medical condition called Foreign Accent Syndrome.

I may speak differently than I did eight years ago, but I am still me on the inside. I just wish other people would see me the way I used to be. The way I am now is still the same but I just can't control what goes from what's left of my brain to my mouth. It gets re-routed to another part of my brain that allows me to speak.

In closing, I would just like to say thank you God for letting me re-learn to communicate with others. Even though it may not sound like me, it is.

Karen Bailey Mullinix
Post 6

I also have this and have had it for five years. I speak with a European accent and have gone tho most of what Kay as been through, although I have it another way. I still understand what she faced and is still facing. I believe there are more out there who don't understand what has happened to them and need help. Please post so they may find a way to get help they need, and bring more to light about doctors to help treat them. Don't let them be lost.

anon179482
Post 5

Last weekend I got a sore throat, a fever, and now- a German accent that doesn't seem to go away. Some moments the accent seems weaker than others yet it's always there. I don't know why.

anon155889
Post 4

I got a headache on friday night and awakened saturday morning with what appeared to be an Jamaican accent! I live in Florida and have more of a southern accent. It shocks everyone who knows me when they first hear me speak.

anon139492
Post 3

My name is Kay and I am a sufferer of Foreign Accent Syndrome. I have suffered with this for one year exactly today.

Foreign Accent Syndrome is a speech impediment, so no sufferer is trying to speak with a foreign accent at all. The accent the listener hears upon conversing with a Foreign Accent Syndrome sufferer is in the perception of the listener, i.e., in your ear, e.g. I am English but most people who hear me say I sound French to them, while others say Eastern European.

This condition affects the sufferer in many ways, because the speech process is completely different for us, therefore interruption or noise/environment can cause us problems when speaking, and the entire process is a lot more tiring for us. Some of our vowels/syllables are not pronounced correctly, some words I cannot say at all and some are mispronounced, like when I say my own name it comes out as "The" rather than Kay.

The writer of this article is correct that it has life changing impact in other ways or can do You go through loss of identity, you are not capable of doing some of the things you used to be, you don't recognise yourself as you used to do so you go through a grief process which is called the loss of self.

The outside world can treat you with prejudice or disbelief. We are, as sufferers, well aware that there are many people in the world who suffer far worse conditions than this however, unless the full impact of this condition is explained (and it is a very real condition then like anything that is rare), most people either don't believe it, or are fearful of it because it's out of the norm.

There are some good experts in the world who specialise in FAS and endeavour to continue in their research to find more about this condition and causes, however more education across the board both in general and medical world is needed.

I have been recently seen on both American and British TV both as an individual and with a fellow FAS sufferer in raising awareness about this condition and with her help have just set up the Foreign Accent Syndrome Association to do just that and also to help other suffers too.

I hope this has given you a brief insight as to what it is like to live with this condition. Just over a year ago I had never heard of it, and now for the last year I have lived with it. Mine happened as a result of a rarer type of migraine: sporadic hemiplegic migraine, which I had suffered with for over 20 years. But, never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought this could happen, but happen it did. As the saying goes: you just never know what life has in store for you.

anon131834
Post 2

I'd say you were missing the point. FAS is about a change in accent (sound produced) and nothing to do with being able to speak another language. So, unless you can speak in three other accents at the same time (making you a medical mystery in your own right), a multi linguistic can, of course, suffer FAS, given the right neurological damage and nobody knows how long it lasts or how to treat it!

anon79103
Post 1

Can a person who speaks three languages suffer from foreign accent syndrome? If so, how long does it last and what's the best treatment approach.

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