In 1941 a young Norwegian woman, Astrid L, suffered a head injury during an air raid. When she regained consciousness she started to speak with a pronounced German accent, and was shunned by her neighbours. This is the perhaps the most famous example of Foreign Accent Syndrome.
Foreign Accent Syndrome is comparatively rare, but always seized on by the media when it appears. Recent cases have included
- Texan woman Lisa Alamia who woke up with a British accent following jaw surgery
- Canadian woman Sharon Campbell-Rayment who developed a Scottish accent after recovering from a fall from her horse
- Englishwoman Sarah Colwill, who developed a Chinese accent after a severe migraine.
- Englishman Chris Gregory, who developed an Irish lilt in place of his Yorkshire accent after brain surgery
- Australian woman Leanne Rowe, developed a French accent after breaking her jaw in a car crash
- Englishwoman Kay Russell who now speaks with a French accent after a sever migraine
- American woman Robin Jenks Vanderlip who developed a Russian accent after knocking her head in a fall.
- Englishwoman Linda Walker, who developed a Jamaican accent in place of her normal Geordie after a stroke
Foreign Accent Syndrome is normally seen as the result to an injury or insult to the brain. Research has shown that specific areas of the brain are involved. These would then seem to be fundamental in controlling pitch, pronunciation, and speech patterns.
Contrary to popular belief people with the syndrome don’t actually develop a specific foreign accent. They certainly don’t all report fluency in their new accent, with many still struggling with what is fundamentally a speech problem.
What appears to be happening with the people listening is that their brains strive to pick out a pattern in the speech disturbance. The foreign accent is as much a result of the listener imposing a pattern onto what they hear – an aural version of pareidolia.
Unfortunately what also happens too often is that people start to drift away from the person affected with Foreign Accent Syndrome. How much of this is a reaction to chronic illness generally is unclear. What does seem to be happening in some cases though, as with Astrid L, is that people don’t like people who aren’t like them – and accents are a key indicator for this.
It’s also a struggle for many people with Foreign Accent Syndrome. They struggle not just with forming speech but with hearing their own voice so altered. Our voices are a part of our identity that we can take for granted, and people have reported feeling that they have lost their identity.
Coupled with friends drifting away, or being unable to understand the distress involved, the syndrome can lead to people feeling depressed and isolated. Unfortunately it doesn’t take the extreme circumstances of Astrid L for people to be shunned – and as much for what is happening in the mind of the listener as in the mouth of the speaker.
If you’ve you’ve been interested by this look at Foreign Accent Syndrome why not take a look at some culture specific illnesses – like the uniquely French ailment of “heavy legs”.
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