Mind & Body

This Rare Condition Can Give You a Foreign Accent

Imagine waking up one day to find that you suddenly have a foreign accent. It might sound outlandish, but it's a very real effect of the very real foreign accent syndrome. One of the rarest medical conditions in the world, the syndrome is typically the result of brain damage, often following a stroke or head trauma. And the effects aren't all fun and games.

Words, Words, Words

Foreign accent syndrome was first described in 1907 by French neurologist Pierre Marie when she wrote about a Parisian man who developed an Alsatian accent (from a region in France) following a stroke. The first more thoroughly documented case occurred during World War II when a Norwegian woman named Astrid developed an accent similar to German or French after being hit in the brain with shrapnel during a raid. Neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn called the condition "dysprosody" at the time, from prosody (non-vocabulary parts of language such as intonation, rhythm, and emphasis).

Astrid didn't speak in a monotone manner, so she still had prosody, but it was different than that of a typical Norwegian speaker; for example, she may have changed her emphasis from "AC-cent" to "ac-CENT" (or vice-versa). Because of the war, friends and neighbors who picked up on her newfound German accent began to shun her, and assistants in certain shops wouldn't even sell her anything. After all, what if it turned out she was a German spy? Not a fun spot to be in at all.

The actual term "foreign accent syndrome" was eventually coined in 1982 by neurolinguist Harry Whitaker, and more than 100 case studies have been published. However, there are two distinct types of the condition: neurogenic and psychogenic. Astrid's case was the more common neurogenic variety, which usually results from damage in the middle cerebral artery and brain regions associated with speech. A case in 2016 demonstrated the rare psychogenic variety, where there isn't any identifiable brain damage, but the person has a psychiatric disorder in addition to the accent. This version was discovered more recently, so scientists know even less about it.

Science Says ...

Technically, a "foreign" accent is when a person speaks one language but uses some of the rules or sounds of another language. For this reason, an accent created by foreign accent syndrome may not make you sound precisely British or French or Hungarian, but it's still a foreign accent. The cause of the condition doesn't stem from the brain trying to impersonate another accent, but rather from a person having trouble controlling muscles used to speak.

When you speak, you're moving your lips, tongue, jaw, and larynx (or voicebox) with a lot of precision. If the speed or coordination of movement gets out of sync, then your speech sounds will change. You can hear this effect when a person drinks too much begins to slur words because alcohol has impaired his or her muscle control. Slight differences in how far forward, back, high, or low your tongue is placed can especially affect the vowels you produce, and research has shown that people with foreign accent syndrome nearly always have trouble producing vowels.

Fortunately, foreign accent syndrome is sometimes treatable. An Italian patient with a brain tumor sounded South American or English prior to an operation, but her old voice returned after a surgeon operated on the tumor. But due to the complexity of the brain, doctors aren't always able to pin down an exact biological cause. In some cases, the condition has resolved itself within a couple of months or years, but other cases have evolved and become a permanent fixture in a patient's life.

If you want to pick up or lose an accent the safe way, then you can always take tips from a dialect coach. Actor and voice coach Amy Jo Jackson told Lifehacker that people should "watch as many things as possible" in the language or dialect you want to emulate, and that "podcasts are now a fabulous free resource to have on in the background." And if you want to get serious but can't afford a coach, then refer to websites entirely devoted to dialect sound samples, or pick up "Speak with Distinction: The Classic Skinner Method to Speech on the Stage" by Edith Skinner. That's where Jackson said she's drawn most of her exercises from, and it's a safe way to sound different.

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Michaela Armer Tells Her Foreign Accent Syndrome Story

Written by Cody Gough January 31, 2018

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