5

This MSN article from 2018-02-13 claims that an American woman fell asleep with a bad headache, and woke up with a British accent.

This has been widely reported, including by The Washington Post and The Independent. There have been other reported cases throughout the years, such as this ABC News article from 2011 about another American woman who also developed a British accent following surgery.

The articles all attribute this to a very rare condition called Foreign Accent Syndrome - the articles state that there have only been around 60 known cases, and it is often preceded by a stroke.

The 2011 ABC article that I linked to above has a quote from Dr. Ted Lowenkopf, a neurologist and medical director of Providence Stroke Center in Portland, Oregon, which makes the condition a lot more plausible:

Although Butler's accent sounds vaguely British -- Welsh, even -- it's purely coincidental.

"Although we think it sounds like a British accent, if you had a language expert listening to her, they would say that's not an English accent," Lowenkopf told KATU. "It's sort of an amalgam of different-sounding speech that sounds like a foreign accent. But it's not truly typical of any one foreign accent."

I know that brain injuries affect language all the time (e.g. Broca's aphasia), but is Foreign Accent Syndrome a widely accepted condition in the medical community? Does it always result in a "British" accent (similar to how a lisp will always result in difficulty with the same phonemes)? Has this been documented in non-English speakers?

  • Is there a reason this is here rather than a medical stack exchange? – Ben Barden Feb 13 '18 at 16:20
  • @BenBarden I want to establish that it's a legitimate syndrome first, and what it actually is..."Waking up with a new accent" is a pretty outlandish claim on the surface, while a more nuanced explanation, such as "a speech impediment that sounds like an accent" is more likely. The secondary purpose of this question is to populate skeptics.SE with questions and answers, in case somebody down the line searches "can you really wake up with a new accent". – RToyo Feb 13 '18 at 16:30
  • Fair enough. The way you're making the question, though, strays from the format (and makes it far more like a medical SE question). You're supposed to identify a specific claim made by a notable source and challenge it. What specific claim are you challenging? – Ben Barden Feb 13 '18 at 16:48
  • 1
    ...or to be more precise, Foreign Accent Syndrome appears to be the actual name of a syndrome with certain attributes. As far as I can tell from minimal reading, the papers here are only mentioning it by that name, and partially describing the attributes. It sounds like the claims that you want to contest are stronger than the ones they're making, and possibly stronger than anyone notable is making. – Ben Barden Feb 13 '18 at 16:51
  • @BenBarden Hmm, my intended question was along the lines of "the news is claiming that a person woke up with an accent, and they are referring to it as Foreign Accent Syndrome - is this a legitimate syndrome?" Similar to how I might ask "a person's burned body was found in their bed, and the news is claiming it is spontaneous human combustion - is there such a thing?". Do you think it would be more clear if I removed the last two questions that are more inline with explaining the syndrome itself? – RToyo Feb 13 '18 at 17:04
9

Foreign accent syndrome is real, and it is discussed in the scientific literature.


The term shows up in the scientific literature. A google scholar search for "Foreign Accent Syndrome" turns up about 900 hits, 58 of them published since 2017. Most of these results appear to be published in peer reviewed scientific journals.

This scientific paper connects foreign accent syndrome to brain "lesions in the language dominant hemisphere." It also reviews the scientific literature surrounding the syndrome and opens with the following passage:

During the last century, more than 170 reports of patients with foreign accent syndrome (FAS) have been published but the disorder is probably much more frequent than currently estimated. Due to speech changes at the segmental (speech segments, e.g., phonemes) and suprasegmental level (contrastive aspects marking speech that are not identified as segments, but rather define the segments, e.g., rhythm, intonation), this rare condition causes the patient with FAS to be perceived by speakers of the same language community as a non-native speaker.

Update (because the OP indicated interest): The literature suggests that foreign accent syndrome is not actually a foreign accent, but a pattern of speech that many listeners perceive as a foreign accent. This paper has a clear and relatively jargon free abstract that explains this. It ends with the following sentence:

... It is suggested that the normal listener categorizes this speech pattern as a foreign accent because the anomalous speech characteristics, while not a part of the English phonetic inventory, reflect stereotypical features which are a part of the universal phonetic properties found in natural language.

  • Thanks, this is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for. The abstract even satisfies my curiosity about what happens to a polyglot: "The second patient was a 72-year-old right-handed polyglot English man who suffered a stroke in the vascular territory of the left posterior inferior cerebellar artery (PICA) and developed a foreign accent in his mother tongue (English) and in a later learnt language (Dutch)" – RToyo Feb 14 '18 at 15:24
  • 4
    @RToyo My somewhat limited reading indicated that they don't truely develop a foreign accent. Something in their brain goes wrong, and changes their speech patterns in a way that happens to sound like a foreign accent. – BobTheAverage Feb 14 '18 at 18:06
  • that was my take away as well. I was just curious to know if it affected secondary languages (where it might require more cognitive thought about forming/pronouncing the words before uttering them) as much as the native language. – RToyo Feb 14 '18 at 19:47
0

This is a kind of trivial LMGTFY - I got this, literally, off the top of the google stack.

https://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/

Foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is speech disorder that causes a sudden change to speech so that a native speaker is perceived to speak with a “foreign” accent. FAS is most often caused by damage to the brain caused by a stroke or traumatic brain injury. Other causes have also been reported including multiple sclerosis and conversion disorder and in some cases no clear cause has been identified.

Speech may be altered in terms of timing, intonation, and tongue placement so that is perceived as sounding foreign. Speech remains highly intelligible and does not necessarily sound disordered.

FAS has been documented in cases around the world, including accent changes from Japanese to Korean, British English to French, American-English to British English, and Spanish to Hungarian.

Some common speech changes associated with FAS include:

Fairly predictable errors 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

The Wikipedia page shows relatively little in the way of scientific references, but no meaningful debate, and a decent smattering of reported cases. UT-Dallas looks like a respectable university, and mentions multiple "accents" from multiple languages. There doesn't seem to be any reason to believe that this is anything other than what it looks like.

  • Thanks @BenBarden. I certainly did google it, but mostly came across news articles and a handful of informational pages, including the one you have linked/quoted here. – RToyo Feb 14 '18 at 15:19

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .