Foreign accent syndrome: a bizarre form of speech disorder

August 7, 2022 • 1:15 pm

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.

17 thoughts on “Foreign accent syndrome: a bizarre form of speech disorder

  1. the two women share a Guinness (!) with the interviewer. Neither of them can stomach the brew.

    IIRC, there is (are?) similar distortions of the taste perception system too. Also associated with seemingly minor brain injuries or illnesses. I had a flat mate who lost his sense of taste for several years after fracturing his skull, and we’ve all heard of cases of people losing their sense of taste following COVID infections.

  2. Strap in ladies. People are cruel and will tell you are faking it as you vomit from pain. This is has been my personal experience and no you will never be normal. The medical community is quite satisfied letting me writhe in daily pain and completely offended if I frown about it.

  3. … 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.

    When Madonna married the English film director Guy Ritchie, and her adopted countrymen began calling her “Midge,” she developed a Brit accent of sorts.

    That count?

    I also had a law-school classmate who’d grown up in Steubenville, went off to Harvard College as an undergrad, and developed the so-called “Larchmont lockjaw,” such that he came out sounding like William F. Buckley, Jr., and Thurston Howell III. Pretty sure his people back in Steubenville would’ve considered that a “foreign accent.”

    But I suppose those were both cases of imitation rather than true FAS.

    1. It must be completely different if it’s sudden and involuntary. People change their accent all the time when moving or changing social circles. I have, again and again, in more than one language. It’s partly conscious imitation, partly just the unconscious human tendency to go with the flow.
      When my father in his old age woke up after anaesthesia one day, for about 5 minutes, he spoke with the accent of his home town (Germany has “dialects” so different that they would be called different languages elsewhere). We had all forgotten that he had ever sounded like that, but of course he did, as a young man. When people move to a foreign country, and learn the new language well, they even tend to become ever so slightly accented in their native language, especially if the languages are relatively close.

  4. What part of the brain is active in those Australian actors, like Cate Blanchett, who can apparently
    speak convincingly in any accent they choose?

    1. THis was understudied last time a looked, which is a while. There are huge individual differences in the ability to do that/learn to speak foreign languages without much of an accent. Some of the interindividual difference may be due to the fact that some people just can’t be bothered (it takes effort to keep it up, and brings little benefit unless you’re an actress).

  5. Not sure how informative it was for the speech pathologist to have Angie sing “Happy Birthday.” At least among rockers, most Anglophone bands sing with an American twang no matter where there from. Heck, except for the odd word here and there (as when Paul never “sawr” the birds in the sky winging in “Till There Was You”), The Beatles didn’t sound like Scousers when they sang. (Well, maybe Ringo did sometimes, though it’s a stretch call what he did “singing.”) And even Men at Work, except for when they were on about being from a land down under, couldn’t necessarily be pegged as Aussies when they sang.

    To my ear, when Angie sings “Happy Birthday,” she sounds like a Yank, too.

      1. I don’t know. A lot of people wonder if it is an intentional affect. A large enough minority of Aspies do it that it seems statistically significant, rather than an isolated phenomenon. I’ve never heard one of them break out of their foreign accent . Still, I only have only seen anecdotal evidence and not clear studies.

        1. A lot of people wonder if evolution is a conspiracy among biologists. The “a lot of people” wonder argument is not an argument, as you recognize when you say you have only seen “anecdotal evidence.” I presume you haven’t read the studies pertaining to this syndrome, or have you?

    1. Looked at the first 10 or so posts on that thread. I’d say that except for the first poster, none of the others describes anything out of the ordinary. Most is normal linguistic adaptation to the environment/normal interindividual differences in speech praxis. The slow, drawling, “American” speech reported by some seems worth a correlational study. What makes things complicated is that Asperger’s is probably not a unitary syndrome. Also, some tests for high-functioning Asperger’s make everyone an Aspie (including me) who has an IQ on the highly gifted side and is an introvert.

  6. Long ago I read that a small fraction of stroke victims lose nouns but not verbs or vice versa, or they lose their native language but not the second language they learned later in life. That sort of thing, depending on what part of the brain was affected, and showing that these things are parked in different parts of the brain.

    Otherwise, how on earth does that commentator woman do what she does with “no”, eg @ 0:10..

  7. The causes behind accents seem like an interesting topic. Not just how a person learns to pronounce words in their own language, which would seem to be a process of copying what one hears. But it is more interesting how that framework sets a person up to pronounce a second language in a distinctive way.
    I don’t have specialist knowledge on the subject, but I do find it interesting.

  8. Interesting but I had a number of questions that were not addressed at all. For example, what were the criteria used to say that the accent sounded ‘Irish’? To me as a Brit it sounded vaguely Irish but you would never have taken the speakers as Irish. Maybe somebody who had spent some time in Ireland and time also in Australia, but not native Irish. Also why were there two Australian natives with ‘Irish’ accents? Of all the foreign accents they could have come up with why that one? It would seem that the type of changes involved neurologically change the accent in a particular direction, in terms of vowel sounds and intonation patterns. Why is this the case? So interesting programme but very superficial.

  9. As someone who gets a kick out of imitating foreign accents, I’ve noticed that the differences between accents are mostly in vowel sounds.
    From the ages of 11 through 18 (1969 – ’75) I lived in Canada but went to school in England. When in England I had a near-perfect English accent, but it would change to a near-perfect Canadian accent sometime during the flight home.
    I’ve never figured out why, but up until the mid-80s or so, Canadians could always tell I was English when I uttered the word ‘somersault’. Otherwise they rarely noticed anything. Nowadays no one notices anything, ever. I haven’t left Canada since 1975, but I can still do an English accent better than most actors, plus I can do half-decent imitations of various accents from around the country, eg. Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cockney, Devon, RP.

  10. In Australia decades ago I met and talked with an Aussie who was born Italian and spoke Australian English with an Italian accent. Really. It was a revelation. For Aussies he just had an italian accent of course. For me he had two accents. Sounds impossible but it is real.

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