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FAS: Foreign accent syndrome

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01APR2009

A British woman has woken up speaking with a Chinese accent after reportedly suffering brain damage brought on by a severe migraine.

There have been around 50 reported cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome since the 1940’s.

fls_newsThe woman, 35, has always spoken with an English West Country accent but after a severe migraine attack which hospitalised her, she now speaks English with an accent from far east, it has been reported.

Doctors have reportedly told her that she she suffers from Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), an extremely rare condition with only a few recorded cases.

She said the changes in her speech were first noticed by the emergency services call operator.

“It was funny at first but to think I’m stuck with this gets me down — my voice has begun to annoy me,” she told The Mirror newspaper. “I’m having speech therapy but don’t know if the Chinese accent will ever go away.”

Having never been to China, said she was frustrated that many people often believed she was faking the accent.

The first recorded case of FAS was in 1941 when a Norwegian woman was struck by a piece of shrapnel and began talking with a German accent.

There are believed to be less than 20 people worldwide suffering from the condition.

Similarly, a man from Yorkshire claims to have started speaking in a broad Irish accent after waking up from brain surgery.

He had never even visited Ireland, but when he regained consciousness after surgery he reportedly started speaking with a strong Irish accent: after three days on a life-support machine after the surgery, he surprised hospital staff and his family with a stirring rendition of Danny Boy from his hospital bed.

This behavioural change is believed to be the result of a rare condition called Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) which causes people start speaking in an entirely different accent. In extremely rare cases they speak fluently in a language they scarcely know.

Foreign Accent Syndrome – what is it?

Doctors believe FAS is triggered following a stroke or head injury, when tiny areas of the brain linked with language, pitch and speech patterns are damaged.

The result is often a drawing out or clipping of the vowels that mimic the accent of a particular country, even though the sufferer may have had limited or no exposure to that accent.

“This syndrome results in a very particular constellation of changes to the way a person speaks,” says Professor Sophie Scott, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.

“They do not actually develop a whole new accent, it is the listener who attaches a particular label to what they are hearing.”

There have been an estimated 50 recorded cases since the syndrome was first indentified in the 1940s. A slight increase in cases has occurred in recent years, but this is probably because researchers are now looking out for them, according to Professor Scott.

Distressing

One of the first reported cases was in 1941 when a young Norwegian woman developed a German accent after being hit by bomb shrapnel during a World War II air raid. She was shunned by friends and neighbours who thought she was a German spy.

And in 2006 a 60 year-old British woman woke from a stroke to find that her Geordie accent had been transformed into a Jamaican one.

“It can be a very distressing experience for people,” says Professor Scott. “We tend to take our voices for granted but people don’t like it when they don’t sound like themselves. Society can be very judgemental when it comes to accents.”

The condition can be permanent or last for a few hours. Some people get help to try learn how to speak in their usual accent again, but it can be a difficult process.

“Foreign Accent Syndrome changes the melody of your speech, the rhythms and specific sounds,” says Prof Scott. “Changing that back to what it once was is not easy.”

In brief

  • FAS occurs after a neurological condition, such as a stroke or head injury.
  • Tiny areas of the brain linked with language, pitch and speech patterns are damaged, causing the lengthening of syllables, change in pitch or mispronunciation of sounds.
  • It is not actually a foreign accent, it is the listener who attaches an accent to the changes

Sources: www.bbc.co.uk; www.dailymail.co.uk

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