Foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is a very rare speech disorder—fewer than 100 cases have been seen in the last century—first described in 1907. In this edition of “60 Minutes Australia,” several such people are highlighted, centering on two Aussies who both developed an inescapable “Irish” accent, one after a migraine and the following a tonsillectomy. (You can find other examples on YouTube, like this one.) The highlight is on Angie Yen, and at 5:47 you can hear a recording of her Aussie accent before the change.
FAS is sometimes temporary and can be treated, though not necessarily cured, with speech therapy. And it’s not exactly the same as a genuine national accent, as a native Irish person might be able to tell with Angie. Wikipedia says this:
To the untrained ear, those with the syndrome sound as though they speak their native languages with a foreign accent; for example, an American native speaker of English might sound as though they spoke with a south-eastern English accent, or a native English speaker from Britain might speak with a New York American accent. However, researchers at Oxford University have found that certain specific parts of the brain were injured in some foreign accent syndrome cases, indicating that particular parts of the brain control various linguistic functions, and damage could result in altered pitch and/or mispronounced syllables, causing speech patterns to be distorted in a non-specific manner. Contrary to popular belief that individuals with FAS exhibit their accent without any effort, these individuals feel as if they have a speech disorder. More recently, there is mounting evidence that the cerebellum, which controls motor function, may be crucially involved in some cases of foreign accent syndrome, reinforcing the notion that speech pattern alteration is mechanical, and thus non-specific.
I was surprised at the emotionality and tears that accompany the meeting of two Aussie women at 10:56, both having FAS of the Irish variety (the condition is significantly more common in women than men). This shows the psychological burden of suddenly losing your own accent. Both seem desperate to resume their old way of speaking.
Towards the end, Angie has an MRI brain scan, revealing both over- and underactive parts of the language center. (Angie again bursts into tears from both relief at the assurance that she’s not faking it—something she was accused of—and inquisitiveness about how she got this way.) The other Aussie woman, Kate, also has disordered activity, though not as severe, perhaps because she’s had the condition longer and is trying to compensate for it.
At the end, with hope that the condition can be mitigated with therapy, the two women share a Guinness (!) with the interviewer. Neither of them can stomach the brew.