Imagine suddenly, and uncontrollably, having a completely different accent. You’ve had a stroke, or surgery, or been in a traffic accident, and when you regain your ability to speak, you sound like you’re from somewhere else. Perhaps you’re from Arizona and now you sound like you’re from England. Or you’re from Australia and sound like you’re from France. Or you’re from England and you sound like you’re from China or … Italy? Poland?
Foreign accent syndrome (FAS for short) is a real thing, though it’s very rare — fewer than 200 cases diagnosed since it was first described in 1907. It may sound like it’s just a delusion or fantasy, but fewer than 10 percent of cases have a psychological basis (for example, related to schizophrenia). Nearly all of the rest are of neurological origin: They are caused by damage or impairment to a specific area of the brain. People who have foreign accent syndrome don’t think they’re from somewhere else, and their language comprehension and overall verbal skills often aren’t affected at all … except for this one thing. And nearly all of them say they’d really like to sound like they used to, but though they try, what comes out sounds like it’s from somewhere else. The reason for this can tell us quite a lot about how we speak, and how we produce and identify different accents.
People with foreign accent syndrome don’t all have the same accent; it varies widely from person to person, and there has been at least one case of a person having several bouts of it and having a different accent each time. And while the accent may sound like it’s from somewhere in particular, if you get people from that place to listen to it, they will say it’s not exactly from there.
The short explanation is that FAS (possibly excepting the few psychological cases) is a disorder of speech planning and execution. It’s a little reminiscent of a home-made robot that doesn’t quite go where it’s supposed to at the right speed and in the right way. But unlike the robot, it doesn’t make a total mess; it just does it differently, in a way that seems recognizable.
That may be hard to believe. Usually if someone has a stroke and it affects their speech, they will have some kind of aphasia, which means they either can’t …read more