Waking up Foreign: Syndrome Causes Changes in Natural Speech Pattern

Heather Atkinson

Nvate Leanne Rowe. Sarah Colwill. Foreign Accent Syndrome, FAS, Kay Russell, voicing errors

Credit: freedigitalphotos.net artur84

In 2008, Leanne Rowe, an Australian bus driver, awoke from being hospitalized after a serious accident that left her back and jaw broken, according to CNN. The most startling injury, however, became evident once Rowe heard herself speak. The typical Aussie articulation she had spoken with her whole life had suddenly been replaced with a strong French-sounding accent that was, in every sense of the word, foreign.

In 2010, a 35-year-old woman named Sarah Colwill suffered from a severe migraine which resulted in something similar; only this time, the mysteriously acquired inflection resembled Chinese. According to CNN, these women were suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome, or FAS.

The Facts about FAS

FAS is defined by the University of Texas at Dallas as a “speech disorder that causes a sudden change to speech so that a native speaker is perceived to speak with a ‘foreign’ accent.”

Mount Sinai Hospital describes FAS on their website as being “caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls the rhythm and melody of speech.” The main contributor to FAS is reportedly a stroke, but the hospital lists other possible factors such as brain hemorrhage, multiple sclerosis, brain tumors and other brain traumas, such as a hard blow to the skull.

FAS isn’t an actual acquisition of a new accent, but rather a change in the linguistic properties of the victim’s natural speech patterns, which makes it appear as if they are speaking with a foreign accent, according to the University of Texas at Dallas. Some of the common speech changes are placing excess stress on multi-syllabic words, voicing errors, trouble with consonant clusters and vowel distortions.

Psychological Consequences of FAS

Although they acquired their new accents in different circumstances, Rowe and Colwill had similar consequences. Both women experienced isolation, depression and anxiety due to this rare result of their respective brain injuries. This is not uncommon, as the loss of one’s normal speaking abilities often causes frustration, and sometimes social embarrassment.

“There can be a lack of understanding of how difficult it can be for the person with the acquired accent. There’s sort of a response of, ‘get rid of the accent, stop putting it on, go back.’ If you think about your own accent, it’s a part of your identity. Changing your accent projects a different identity,” Dr. Karen Croot, an expert on FAS, told CNN.

Treatment and Prevention

A cure for FAS hasn’t been found. It is extremely rare—there are only a few dozen recorded cases in the world—so treatments are few, and should be discussed with a medical professional on an individual basis. According to Mount Sinai Hospital, some of the treatment options available are speech therapy, which can help the patient in a sense “re-learn” their normal speech habits, and counseling, to assist the patient and family in coping with feelings of isolation or embarrassment that may occur.

Since a stroke is the main reported cause of FAS in patients, there are steps you can take to avoid becoming an at-risk party. The National Stroke Association advises speaking with a health care professional and following a series of steps. Knowing your blood pressure, controlling alcohol use, knowing your cholesterol levels as well as managing diet and exercise are all ways to lower your risk of stroke.

Kay Russell, another victim of FAS, has expressed herself as being “lost.” In a BBC News video, Russell ended the segment by saying, “I strive very hard to do what I do, but I will strive also very hard to find me again.”

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