Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) is one of those rare psychological disorders whose name literally describes the disease. People with FAS suddenly start speaking with foreign accents. Why? And how do doctors treat such a syndrome, besides giggling hysterically behind their hands? Let's delve into the twisted lingo of one of the strangest psychological disorders!

I never really understood the big furor, about a decade back, when Madonna started talking with a British accent. I think part of the backlash must have been resentment - she goes to England and snatches up all the good castles and directors, and then she takes the accent, too. Still, to me it seemed perfectly normal. She'd moved to a new country and was hanging around a British husband. When people move to new places their accents change naturally as they unconsciously mimic the speech they hear around them.


Or, alternately, she could have gone in for dental surgery and walked out with a what ho and a hey nonny nonny. She could have gotten brain surgery and came out talkink lahk zees. She could have had a migraine and began talking with a Chinese accent, which I don't know how to phonetically transcribe. All these things have sparked cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome, a disorder which gives people strange lilts, causes them to stress weird consonants, and all-over messes up the way they talk.

The first case of rigorously described Foreign Accent Syndrome was in 1941, when a Norwegian woman was struck in the head by shrapnel during an air raid. Luckily, she survived. Unluckily, she suddenly found herself mispronouncing vowels and juggling stresses in such a way that she seemed to have a German accent. The social isolation she endured because of the accent eventually caused her to seek treatment, and her case was described in 1947. Although the the shrapnel and the air raid are rare, the brain damage she suffered is typical of foreign accent syndrome. Migraines, strokes, problems with brain surgery, problems with anesthesia that might have lead to minor brain damage - any of these are the most common causes in FAS. There have recently, however, been cases of Developmental Foreign Accent Syndrome, in which a child of a certain family simply grows up intoning their own language with a foreign accent.

In general Foreign Accent Syndrome seems to be a lucky confluence of biology and sociology. Many people who have strokes have speech problems and, as they recover, speak differently. FAS patients have their brain damage so limited that only the intonation and verbal stresses are affected. When people hear these stresses, they fit them in to the other accents they've heard in their life. It occurs in nearly every languages, having been documented in Korean (with a Japanese accent), Dutch (with a French accent), Norwegian (the unlucky woman with a German accent) and English (with accents ranging from Chinese to Russian to hodgepodge British). The University of Texas at Dallas a few sample of before and after speech of a woman who seemed to develop a Russian accent.


Of course some people affect a foreign accent consciously in order to gain attention or take on a new and more glamorous identity. Doctors studying FAS screen their patients from the pretenders by looking for consistency. They meet with patients over a series of weeks and have them record a certain passage of text each time. They also have them record different passages, with similar sounds. A person with actual FAS will have consistent speech patterns, saying the vowels and stressing the consonants the same way in different situations. Those who study foreign accents and try to imitate them almost inevitably slip up. FAS is a physiological problem, not a psychological one.

Since FAS presents no great medical problems, it's often hard to get treatment for it. Ideally, the treatment would include doctors looking at both the lesion in the brain and a speech therapist helping a patient train their tongue into obeying them. Some patients, like the British woman who picked up a Chinese accent after migraines or, no doubt, the unfortunate Norwegian, are glad to try anything to change their accent. Others, though, are happy to show off their new way of speaking. One woman, in Oregon, who picked up a Britishy-Irishy-Scottishy accent has found that it makes people respond to her more positively, and has become more outgoing than she was before, with her plain American accent.


Top Image: Mime UA

Via BPS, NPR, ASHA, The Guardian, UT Dallas.


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