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Waking Up With a New Accent: Foreign Accent Syndrome Is a Real Thing

After brain trauma, some wake up with a whole new accent

Image: MBShane

Some people have an embarrassing tendency to mimic other peoples’ accents. But one woman in the news recently wasn’t mimicking a new accent, she fully adopted it, accidentally, after a car accident.

The story goes like this: Leanne Rowe was driving along in Tasmania, her home country, when she was in a serious car accident. When she woke up in the hospital, her jaw hurt and she had difficulty talking. When she regained her ability to speak, however, she was in for an unexpected surprise. Rather than speaking with her usual Australian accent, she sounded distinctly French.

What Rowe suffers from to this day is called Foreign Accent Syndrome, a rare disorder that can occur after serious brain injury like a stroke or an accident. Rowe isn’t the first person to develop this disorder, of course. In 1999 an American woman suffered a stroke and was left with a British accent. In 2009, a man from Yorkshire woke up from a brain operation and spoke with an Irish accent for about thirty minutes. Another British man suffered from a brain hemorrhage and woke up with a Russian accent. All told there have been about 62 cases recorded worldwide of Foreign Accent Syndrome, and while they might seem funny to some, the causes and implications are quite interesting.

But what’s going on in the brain to make someone speak with an accent they’ve never had? At United Academics, Lyndsey Nickels writes that it probably has something to do with damaging the areas of the brain that control the muscles used to produce speech – particularly vowels:

Vowels are particularly susceptible: which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth. Slight differences in where your tongue is – how far forward or back, how high or low in your mouth – changes the vowel you produce. Different languages have different vowels and within a language one of the main differences between accents is in the vowels. Aussies accuse Kiwis of saying “fush and chups” and Kiwis of Aussies “feesh and cheeps”!

Research has shown people with foreign accent syndrome nearly always have trouble producing vowels. Brain damage affects their ability to control their tongue movements. There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may “undershoot” or “overshoot” their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent.

And, essentially, it’s not that Rowe (or any other sufferers) has changed their accent to a different one in particular. It’s more that they’ve changed the way they pronounce certain sounds, and that we try to place that new accent into one we know. Rowe’s new French accent isn’t particularly French, it just sounds more French than any other accent that people know of. In fact, many people who suffer from Foreign Accent Syndrome don’t have a particular accent, but simply one that is different from what they had before. One British woman says that her new accent has been described as everything from Italian, to Slovakian, to French Canadian to Jamaican.

For those who suffer, Foreign Accent Syndrome is no joke. Leanne Rowe says that it makes her life quite difficult. She told the Australian Broadcasting Commission that she no longer speaks in public, and that the accent has caused anxiety and depression. During World War II a Norwegian woman who was hit with bomb shrapnel and woke up with a German accent was shunned by neighbors who thought she had been a German spy all along. One British woman told the BBC “I’ve lost my identity, because I never talked like this before. I’m a very different person and it’s strange and I don’t like it.”

 

More from Smithsonian.com:

An Unbelievable Accent
Accents Are Forever

 

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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