Foreign Accent Syndrome

accent

A car crash, dental surgery, a migraine, hit by shrapnel, a seizure – all these incidents led to the same condition in different people and that condition is Foreign Accent Syndrome, (FAS.)

Of the approximately 60 to 70 recorded cases of FAS, patients include one Australian woman who began speaking with a French accent after a car crash; a British woman who began speaking with a Chinese accent after a serious migraine; and an American woman who began speaking in a mix of Irish, English and other European accents after dental surgery. The very first recorded case occurred in 1941 after a young Norwegian woman suffered a shrapnel injury to the brain during an air raid – she began speaking with a German accent afterward and was ostracized as a result by people who thought she was faking the accent.

A common misconception among people meeting someone with FAS is that the FAS patient is able to speak a second language. Most FAS patients are actually monolingual and none of them acquire the ability to speak the language from which their accent derives. (There is one case, which is probably not considered FAS, of a Croatian girl who fell into a coma and woke up having lost the ability to speak Croatian but being able to speak fluent German.) [source]

I found it interesting as I researched that most of the cases I encountered were of Anglo women, but then I discovered the case of a man in England who began to speak with an Italian or Greek accent and an Australian boy who spoke with an American accent. Still, the vast majority of people with FAS seem to be women and I’m unable to find information of this occurring in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Whether this means it hasn’t occurred there or simply that the cases weren’t recorded as FAS, remains to be seen. (I can imagine that some cases could have been disregarded as mental illness.)

For some people this condition is a source of depression, frustration and embarrassment. Some people feel like they’ve lost a part of their identity – other people embrace it as a new identity.

How do you think you’d react to one day waking up with Foreign Accent Syndrome? Is there an accent you wouldn’t mind having? Which accent would you not want to have? How do you think it would affect your daily life?

Related Articles and Videos:

CNN – Australian Car Crash Victim Acquires French Accent

CNN – Video: Instant New Accent/Jeanne Moos reports

NPR – A Curious Case of Foreign Accent Syndrome

Video: Embarrassing Bodies – Foreign Accent Syndrome

Common Features of FAS

Video: Foreign Accent Syndrome on My Strange Brain – Part I
Video: Foreign Accent Syndrome on My Strange Brain – Part II
Video: Foreign Accent Syndrome on My Strange Brain – Part III

Posted on June 20, 2013, in health, Issues, Language. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Years ago, I watched the documentary about a woman from the Midwest who suddenly acquired a British English accent and was also accused of faking it. I, myself, would not mind waking up and sounding like my colleague from London whom all my English as a Second Language students liked when we taught overseas in Paris, France. They all adored him because he spoke “clearly” and they were used to hearing GB rather than US English. It was almost as if US English was considered sub-standard.

    • A lot of people prefer British English to American English, but there are people who feel the opposite as well. I think they both have advantages and can be equally charming. (I know some British people who LOVE the American southern accent.)

      Here’s a quote I like that is relevant here: “I shouldn’t be saying this – high treason, really – but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren’t fooled by our accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there.”
      - Stephen Fry

  2. Love this article, Tracy. I adore foreign languages and majored in French and Spanish. At a college party, a friend and I decided to masquerade as French exchange students. Given how much fun it was watching people’s reactions, I would opt for a French accent.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Pamela! You reminded me of a time I was in Italy and some American tourists mistook me for a local, (I was wearing a scarf over my head that I had bought at the market because I thought it looked very chic LOL!) … I played along and spoke with an Italian accent, giving them directions to a place to eat for lunch down the street and they were totally fooled. It was awesome.

  3. Very interesting, Tracy! I think it definitely has to mess up your identity. I’d be very confused.

    • It’s amazing that the way one speaks is such an integral part of who we are… I imagine people with FAS have a new found compassion for immigrants. In one of the documentaries I watched about the syndrome, a British woman related how a taxi driver tried to rip her off by charging her double, thinking she wasn’t from around there.

  4. Dear Tracy, I’ve been following your blog for a while now,. I know you don’t like it that you have a slight English accent while speaking Spanish, but I would like to stress that banging your head against a wall is not the solution. Really. It isn’t.

    FAS can be explained quite easily. A (foreign) accent is usually caused by inability to produce a certain sound that is part of a language, but that a speaker never learned to properly pronounce, because it doesn’t exist in his native language.

    For example: try speaking Spanish, but consistently use the English “r”, as in the word “American”. Then you’ll have a very bad gringo accent.

    Check out this guy, he gives some more examples: http://www.snotr.com/video/7492/Hilarious_Accents__Comedian_Elon_Gold_

    So if you have brain damage and you lose your ability to pronounce certain letters, people might perceive that as an accent. But in reality it isn’t.

    Now about your accent. I already wanted to tell you this. Don’t worry about it. You can reduce an accent, but you will never completely eliminate it. Accents are so incredibly subtle. There are cases known of people who can distinguish inhabitants of their own village or neighborhood from others who live 2 or 3 miles down the road. People are extremely skilled in recognizing their own accent, it’s actually fascinating.

    The shadow side of that is that you’ll never convince a Salvadoran that you’re Salvadoreña. You may convince a Mexican or a Colombian, but not Salvadoran. Nor will I ever convince a Peruvian that I’m from Peru. Or a Cuban that I´m Cuban.

    It comes down to acceptance really. We’re Gringos. You are an American woman, I am a European guy, we’ll never be Latinos. We can achieve a very impressive level in Spanish, but we’ll never have the exact accent, we will never have brown eyes or dark skin. But the one thing isn´t better then the other, so that´s okay ;-)

    • Love the video of the comedian!

      Your explanation/theory of “Foreign Accent Syndrome” is one I came across in some of my research. That makes a lot of sense, although I don’t think it explains it 100% … FAS is still very fascinating to me and the brain is still quite mysterious even to those who study it professionally.

      As for my accent in Spanish – Yes, I’ve come to accept I won’t ever have a “native speaker” accent but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in improving my pronunciation. My motive for perfecting my accent as much as possible has never been so I could become Latina or even pass as or “fool” people into thinking I’m Latina. I’m just fascinated with language, all aspects of it – and that includes the different sounds, and how they’re created. It’s more of a geeky obsession than anything else. I consider it a fun challenge to try to master it, even if it’s a lifelong pursuit that may never be accomplished.

      One thing I’ll admit, I do wish I had as much passion for things I find less interesting such as verb conjugations because that would really help me with my fluency ;)

      Yes – I’ll always be me. I’m cool with that :)

  5. I noticed that with my French friends we speak Parisian French but that if a Quebecer is with us, we tend to adopt some kind of Quebec accent and vocabulary. Weird, eh?

    • Weird and yet common! As I told Fernanda, this will be the topic of another post sometime soon, I hope. I have similar experiences with my accent changing but of course this is outside the realm of brain injury and Foreign Accent Syndrome!

  6. In Argentina there are so many different accents, and that is so great and so bad at the same time.

    The good:
    I really love the way people from Córdoba province speak. It feels like they are singing when you listen to them. They are so much fun to listen to, and they tend to be such spirited fun people too! I wonder weather the accent has something to do with the personality of a certain culture. Porteños, people from Buenos Aires and the surroundings, are considered to be proud, giving themselves too much self-worth… unbearable people (hey, hold on! that´s not true, you can´t generalize: I´m a nice girl! but this is what people in my country tend to say/think because of the accent). The accent here is way more sharp than in other provinces. Even in Buenos Aires city, you can infer where does a person live following their accent (is he from the “high status northern area”?, is he from the “low income, hard-working south”?).

    The bad:
    My parents are from Mendoza province and even when I was born and grew up speaking the sharp porteño style, every time we go to Mendoza for a visit I get the FAS syndrome – without any brain surgery needed to cause the problem!
    My husband and my kids would not recognize me if I´m not facing them and when they realize it´s me they laugh… laugh… laugh! It might take me a few weeks back home to completely clear the accent.
    So I conclude my brain has spared a little space for an accent I heard from my parents, even when normally I don´t have it and and I cannot force it. It´s beyond my control.
    Interesting, uh?
    I love your posts about accent and I would love to read for you the ceceo, seseo and zezeo thing, so you could hear how different the typical Argentinean Porteño sounds… but I´m not good at technology and I don´t know how to record my voice and send it to you. If I find a way, I will do it!
    Love,
    Fernanda

    • I loved reading your comment, Fernanda!

      I too experience an unintended change of accent depending on who I’m around, etc. I was saving this topic for another post since it’s a different phenomenon than Foreign Accent Syndrome!

      I’m not sure what kind of computer you have, but I have Windows and if you go to “Start”, then “All Programs” and then “Accessories” – you will find a simple little program called “Sound Recorder” which is very easy to use. If you have a built-in microphone, you can record like that. If your computer doesn’t have a microphone built-in, you can purchase an external one which just plugs in to a microphone jack on the computer.

      Hopefully you have this program and are able to use it. If you save the file after recording, then you should be able to E-mail it. I would love to hear the differences in Argentinian accents that you described!

      Abrazos,
      Tracy

  7. I’ve found attempting to learn tongue-twisters in Spanish forces my tongue and palate to do movements they’re not used to doing speaking English. I think it has helped reduce my accent somewhat, but I’ll never pass for Salvadoran. Like you, that’s not my goal either, but I do enjoy being able to speak well enough that people are surprised (then again, as generous as Latino people are, they can just be really nice and be complimenting me as I butcher their language). At best, when I have a cold I’ll have someone ask if I’m Brazilian. My other problem is that I’ll learn words that are Caliche or Nahuatl and I don’t realize they’re not part of the Real Academia Española.

    • Barrett, I still have this problem of using Caliche words and not realizing it. I’m pretty sure one of my Mexican friends thinks I regularly just make words up ;)

      I like to surprise people with my Spanish too, but like you said, it’s difficult to know how impressed they really are since they’re quite generous to begin with.

      You made me LOL with your Brazilian remark. Hilarious!

  8. I had never heard of this!!!! And I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain as to how it’s even possible.
    I’d go for a French or Portuguese accent. So sexy

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