Health Talk: Foreign Accent Syndrome

Credit: Lizzee  Solomon, Art Staff Credit: Lizzee Solomon, Art Staff Credit: Lizzee Solomon, Art Staff Credit: Lizzee Solomon, Art Staff

Imagine a Caucasian speaking English with an exotic Chinese accent. Strange as it sounds, patients with the Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) do just this.FAS is a rare brain disorder often caused by a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or multiple lesions. Only around 50 cases have been reported since 1941.

People with this syndrome speak their native languages with a foreign accent. FAS has been documented in cases around the world, and accent changes from Japanese to Korean, British to French, American English to British English, Spanish to Hungarian, and many more have been recorded.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, one of the earliest cases of FAS was recorded in Kirkenes, Norway in 1941. Astrid L., a 35-year-old woman who suffered from a severe head injury by shrapnel during an air raid, mysteriously adopted a strong German accent after her recovery and was greatly shunned by fellow Norwegians.

A recent case of the syndrome came about in 2008. CindyLou Romberg, who has never even left Port Angeles, Wash., developed an accent that could be from any number of exotic countries in the world. According to an interview conducted by ABC News, Romberg sometimes “rolls her R’s like a Russian, chops her syllables like a German, or turns an unsuspecting W into a V like a Swede.”
Romberg also shared her experiences on Good Morning America, and recounted that when she was in the grocery store, people would go up to her and say, “Oh you have a beautiful accent. Where are you from?”

At first an enigma, recent studies and investigations have shed some light on FAS and its underlying mechanisms. The human brain is divided in two halves: the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. However, unlike our pairs of eyes and legs, the right and left hemispheres of the brain have different functions and roles. While the right hemisphere of the brain deals more with the visual activities and has a vital role in processing information, the left hemisphere deals more with language and has a significant role in analyzing information that is given to the brain.

Therefore, it is not surprising that researchers found that most cases of FAS were associated with lesions to the left hemisphere of the brain. More specifically, patients usually have damage in the Broca’s area, the motor strip adjacent and inferior to the Broca’s area region, and/or the middle frontal gyrus.

In addition to the knowledge of the functions of the different parts of the human brain, a pattern found in all the patients was an important piece to solve the puzzle of the mysterious FAS. According to a review article in the Journal of Neurolinguistics written by a group of phoneticians who listened to the FAS patients, the patients’ speech “does not consistently resemble a foreign dialect.”

Instead, it fluctuates in its similarity to a wide variety of languages, and even to different families of languages. Therefore, the name “Foreign Accent Syndrome” may be a misnomer. The patients, in fact, perform continuous alterations in linguistic prosody — the rhythm or tone of speech — that untrained ears generally mislabel as a different dialect or accent.

Thus, patients of FAS adopt their “foreign accents” due to a disruption in the ability to carry out variations in linguistic prosody, such as syllable length, vowel production, and pitch of speech. As stated earlier, the inability to produce these variations is often the result of damage in the Broca’s area.

This damage could also lead to Broca’s aphasia, which causes people to have trouble performing the motor or output aspects of speech.