Imagine your accent changed over night. You’re a middle aged woman who has lived in New York City all your life when a car hits you and you have a traumatic head injury. Shortly after, you awake in a hospital bed, but your recognizable Long Island accented voice has disappeared and it sounds like your Croatian, and you have never even left the U.S!
This rare condition is known as foreign accent syndrome (FAS) and usually occurs after strokes and as mentioned above, traumatic head injuries. FAS is acquired where the patient still remembers their native language, but they place stress and pitch on different words resulting in a change of speech rhythm (Foreign Accent Syndrome). According to one case study, an African American woman with diabetes, hypertension, and goiter noticed her accent shifted so her words ended with “-ahh” similar to a Jamaican accent (Tran et al.). That was one extreme of the spectrum, while other case studies have reported patients’ accents changing minorly so they sound like they are from another province such as a 71-year old Korean woman who was reported as having Cholla-buk regional accent and switched to a accent in the Kagwon province. These accent changes can be attributed to impaired motor function which leads to incorrect tongue placement and slurred vowels and consonants (Tran et al.).
In a comparative verbal study, A FAS patient fluent in Italian was compared to several healthy subjects. The FAS patient had a tumor surrounding his prefrontal gyrus and as a result there was sparse activation in this area. Corresponding motor functions of the tongue, lips, and larynx were impaired changing the patient’s rhythm of speech and a perceived overall change in accent (Tomasino et al.)(Sakurai et al.).
From my own experience, I had a friend in high school whose mother had a stroke a few years prior to me meeting her. She had apparently grown up in Sacramento, and had perfectly recognizable California accent, but when I was introduced to her after the stroke I thought she had recently immigrated from Germany because of her guttural pronunciation of certain words. Her original accent has returned slowly and her slurred speech has diminished concurrently. Whether patients can recover their native accents is questionable as it may depend on the extremity of their stroke or head injury.
Tomasino B, Martin D, Maieron M, Ius T, Budai R, Fabbro F, Skrap M. 2011.Foreign accent syndrome: a multimodal mapping study. Cortex 49(1) 18-39.
Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) Support, University of Texas Dallas, http://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/about/
Sakurai Y, Ito K, Sai K, Lee S, Abe S, Terao Y, Mannen T. 2014. Impaired Laryngeal voice production in a patient with foreign accent syndrome. Neurocase 21(3) 289-298
Tran AX, Mills AD. 2013. A case of Foreign Accent Syndrome. Journal of Emergency Medicine 45(1) 26-29
2 thoughts on “Iitalian with a touch of Australian- Foreign Accent Syndrome”
I found this blog post to be incredibly interesting because I have never heard of Foreign Accent Syndrome before, so through the post and the YouTube video, I learned something new about this fascinating syndrome. I had never thought about accents being controlled by the brain, I always assumed that accents were a result of the environment and culture in which you learned the language, and had never thought about the brain’s role in accents. I can not imagine waking up one morning or post-recovery of a TBI and having a completely different voice. Our voices play a huge role in how people recognize us and how we characterize ourselves, so suddenly waking up and having your voice be different would be a pretty traumatic experience. I would be interested to know if there is any correlation between the specific area of brain injury and the type of accent that results. What causes particular accents to arise and is there a correlation between the brain area damaged, type of damage, etc. and the resulting accent?
Cool post! I am often skeptical of stories such as these, when people wake up from some sort of trauma with a new unexpected skill or trait. However, being able to understand the brain’s role in this specific change really helps. This post made me think about the way we perceive Foreign Accent Syndrome. Does the FAS patient actually have a new accent specific to some place, or do we just recognize the random changes being made by her brain to her pronunciation and call it a foreign accent? If it’s the former, how does that work? You would have to be subconsciously aware of an accent’s intonations. That seems possible, for example, for the Korean woman.
In addition, this whole topic sheds light on the brain’s role in the motor movements of language. It would be interesting to look at what parts of the brain are in use for different languages, especially those that require very specific mouth movements.