The Shocking Story of Foreign Accent Syndrome

Foreign accent syndrome is a very rare medical disorder characterized by speech problems, usually as a result of severe brain injury, caused by a stroke or a head injury, but more rarely caused by a severe migraine. Those suffering from the condition begin to speak with a foreign accent that is often dialectical. The accent can be from anywhere in the world – for example, a woman from the south-west of England began to speak with a Beijing Chinese accent. An American individual suffering from foreign accent syndrome may speak with a London England accent.

The syndrome does not just cause an individual to speak with a foreign accent. It causes people to have great difficulty pronouncing certain syllables and word sounds, as well as difficulty in planning speech and co-ordination in speech – so the individual might know exactly what they want to say but when it comes to getting words in the right order and with getting speech sounds in the right order. This makes them sound as though the accent is native and that English is not their first language.

Foreign accent syndrome is actually caused by certain, specific brain injury. Researchers have discovered that this specific brain injury is linked to the parts of the brain that control linguistics, linguistic functions, speech pronunciation, pitch and speech patterns. The injury to these areas can cause the pitch of the voice to be altered and the speech patterns to be changed in a way that is actually non-specific. It may be that the notion of a foreign accent has come from the listener, not the actual sufferer of the condition. Someone suffering with it may fill in the rest of their speech patterns with the foreign accent so that speech maintains a normal sort of flow – if the accent wasn’t used, speech would sound very odd indeed. Usually, individuals find it much easier to speak in their foreign accent than their original accent, and if asked, they often cannot speak in their original accent as the pitch and cadence of the word sounds are just too difficult for them to form.

The syndrome is incredibly rare and there have only been around 100 documented cases since it was first reported at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the first reported cases of the syndrome was during WWII, whereby a Norwegian female was hit by some shrapnel. She then developed a German accent, and because of the war, was ostracized by her peers. In 2001, a man from North Carolina in America had a stroke and then woke up with a British accent – but not just any British accent, an incredibly proper ‘Queen’s English’ British accent.

Another woman suffering from foreign accent syndrome has developed more than one accent. Originally from Newcastle and with a very broad Geordie accent, the lady had a stroke and has been described as having a Jamaican, Italian, Slovakian and French Canadian accent. In 2008, the first documented case of foreign accent syndrome caused by a migraine or migraine condition was recorded. A woman from Indiana with severe migraines developed foreign accent syndrome, speaking in a Russian or British accent depending on her fatigue levels and the perception of the listener – for example, a British person would be more likely to hear her speak in a British accent than an American individual would.

Sufferers of the syndrome often appear on television shows and in magazine interviews to talk of their ordeal. Many sufferers say that people did not believe that they actually were suffering from any syndrome and thought that they were just ‘putting on’ the accent, and so they make television appearances to educate people about their syndrome.

The story of foreign accent syndrome is no doubt a fascinating one – but don’t be too surprised if you suffer a terrible migraine and wake up with a completely different voice!