Foreign Accent Syndrome


Foreign Accent Syndrome is a rare medically recognised condition which is a speech impediment that usually occurs as a resulting side effect of brain injury, such as a stroke or head trauma. As a result of the speech impediment those suffering from the Foreign Accent Syndrome pronounce their native language with an accent that to the ear of the listeners may be mistaken as foreign or dialectical.

It has many other impacts and effects, including poor memory and concentration span, as well as a feeling of loss of identity, potentially causing those affected to go through a bereavement process. Two cases have been reported of individuals with the condition as a development problem and one associated with severe migraine. Between 1941 and 2009 there have been sixty recorded cases.

Its symptoms result from distorted articulatory planning and coordination processes. It must be emphasized that the speaker does not suddenly gain a foreign language (vocabulary, syntax, grammar, etc.). Despite a recent unconfirmed news report that a Croatian speaker has gained the ability to speak fluent German after emergence from a coma, there has been no verified case where a patient’s foreign language skills have improved after a brain injury. There have been a few reported cases of children and siblings picking up the new accent from someone with foreign accent syndrome.

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 he spoke with a south-eastern English accent, or a native British speaker 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 certain parts of the brain control various linguistic functions, and damage could result in altered pitch or mispronounced syllables, causing speech patterns to be distorted in a non-specific manner.

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. Thus, the perception of a foreign accent is likely a case of pareidolia (where vague and random stimulus are perceived as significant).

For example, damage to the brain might result in difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘r’ at the end of words, forcing a rhotic speaker to use a non-rhotic accent, even if they have never spoken with one. In the U.S., non-rhoticity is a particularly notable feature of a Boston accent, thus the person might seem to speak with a Boston accent to the casual listener. However, many of the other features of a Boston accent may be wholly missing.

It has been suggested that in order to maintain a sense of normality and flow, someone with the syndrome then augments the accent effect by imitating the rest of the accent. Depending on how important a certain phoneme is to a person’s original accent, he might find speaking in a different accent to be much easier and his usual accent very difficult to consistently pronounce after some motor skills have been lost.

The condition was first described in 1907 by the French neurologist Pierre Marie, and another early case was reported in a Czech study in 1919. Other well-known cases of the syndrome have included one that occurred in Norway in 1941 after a young woman, Astrid L., suffered a head injury from shrapnel during an air-raid. After apparently recovering from the injury, she was left with what sounded like a strong German accent and was shunned by her fellow Norwegians.

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