Lately a great deal of attention has been paid to an American man, Michael Boatwright, who was found unconscious and awoke speaking only Swedish, but there is also a rare disorder that causes the patient to speak, not in a foreign language, but with a foreign accent. Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) is usually the result of damage to a part of the brain—either internally in the case of a stroke, or from an external source like a head injury—that controls the mechanical processes of speech.
Speaking requires very precise control of the muscles of the tongue, lips jaw, and larynx, with even slight changes to the muscles controlling these areas, speech sounds may be altered in terms of timing, intonation, and tongue placement and perceived as foreign by others.
One of the most famous examples of FAS is of a Norwegian woman who was hit by shrapnel in World War II. She developed a German accent and was subsequently shunned as a result. More recent cases include a Tasmanian woman who developed a French accent after a head injury, and Karen Butler, from Newport Oregon, who was diagnosed after oral surgery left her sounding Eastern European.
According to a Foreign Accent Syndrome support website, symptoms may include:
- Unusual prosody, including equal and excess stress (especially in multi-syllabic words)
- Consonant substitution, deletion, or distortion
- Voicing errors (i.e. bike for pike)
- Trouble with consonant clusters
- Vowel distortions, prolongations, substitutions (i.e. “yeah” pronounced as “yah”)
- “uh” inserted into words
Symptoms can last anywhere from months to years, and in some cases become a permanent fixture in the patient’s life. Luckily, Foreign Accent Syndrome is very rare — there have been less than a hundred diagnosed cases since 1941, and most of us will never have to contend with it. But that begs the question, what would you do if you woke up speaking with a foreign accent?