What in the world is foreign accent syndrome? And how does it work?
When you hear someone with a British accent behind you in the line for coffee, you’re likely to take notice. It sounds different than the type of voice patterns you’re used to, so you’ll probably pick up on it pretty quickly. And, let’s face it— whether someone’s accent is French, Russian, German, Brazilian, or Australian, they probably sound pretty cool. But did you know that some people spend mimic these accents, and others, at all times? And they might not be doing it on purpose.
Foreign Accent Syndrome: What Is It?
While you and your friends might try to pull off a British accent for your best Harry Potter impressions (come on, we’ve all done it), some people don’t have a choice. For some individuals who are suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), they lose some control over their speaking pattern, and this often results in an accent that sounds ‘foreign’.
There are a variety of symptoms that can pop up with FAS, such as stressing the incorrect part of the word (especially in words with a lot of syllables) or mixing up sounds (like saying ‘cat’ instead of ‘hat’). And FAS isn’t just limited to English-speakers; there have been documented cases of people with FAS in Japan and Spain, too, just to name a couple of places.
How Does It Work?
For a long time, it was thought that FAS was only caused by structural damage within the brain. While there are other causes now recognized, this is still the most common. Typically this damage is caused by some sort of severe accident, like a car crash, a stroke, or some other form of traumatic injury. The damage to the brain is thought to affect the pathways where the brain controls things like vocal cords and the tongue, changing the ways that the speaker is able to talk.
According to a new study, however, there may be other causes of FAS that don’t have anything to do with brain damage. Laura McWhirter and her research colleagues found that in a study of 49 self-proclaimed FAS sufferers (all English-speaking, though their accents ranged from Italian to Nigerian and many in between), a whopping 71% did not seem to show evidence of neurological damage, indicating that the cause must lie elsewhere.
Additionally, within the 71% of speakers in the study that supposedly have their cause hidden in psychology rather than neurological damage (often called ‘functional’ FAS cases), they were often able to correctly make sounds in their native accent outside of certain words, but also seemed to be inconsistent with their sounds in general. One participant, for example, pronounced ‘cookie jar’ as ‘tutty dar’, but was able to correctly pronounce similar sounds (‘j’, ‘sh’, /k/, etc.) in other words.
So Now What?
While the results of this study are interesting and certainly enlightening as to the causes of FAS, they are not particularly conclusive. Even though none of the presumably ‘functional’ FAS cases showed evidence of brain damage, only about 50% of the supposedly neurologically-caused cases showed any evidence of brain damage; so that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It does open up a world of possibilities, though.
If FAS can be caused by psychological things rather than neurological damage, we might be able to study more of it, and, once we figure out what’s going on underneath the surface, we might be able to help treat the symptoms. In the meantime, though, the media will keep going crazy for every case it can find; from beauty queens to survivors of car accidents, having your accent suddenly change on you is kind of weird, and as long as people are suffering from FAS, the media will keep paying attention.