Foreign Accent Syndrome

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This week I will be taking a look at a condition called Foreign Accent Syndrome. It is completely harmless, and hence a much less severe medical oddity than I have been covering.

Imagine that your American friend who has never left the state of Pennsylvania let alone the country wakes up one day after bumping his head and is now speaking in a British accent. It’s a good accent too; if you introduce your friend to someone else they might ask your friend when they lived in England. No, your friend isn’t faking it, he’s just suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome.

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Foreign Accent Syndrome is a rare medical condition in which patients develop a seemingly foreign accent. It can be any accent: French, German, Chinese, etc. It is important to note that to the untrained ear the accents appear flawless, but research has shown that patients might stumble on the occasional syllable or pronunciation. Researchers at Oxford have found that in patients with Foreign Accent Syndrome certain parts of the brain were usually damaged. Researchers have decided that certain parts of the brain are responsible for different linguistic mechanisms; they also chalk up the problems with the new accents to the damage done in patient’s brains. Don’t let that fool you though, because the accents can be surprisingly convincing; children and siblings hanging around people with Foreign Accent Syndrome have actually taken up the new accent sometimes.

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As to the purely negative effects of having Foreign Accent Syndrome, most patients report that they feel as if they are suffering from a speech disorder. Furthermore, patients speaking with their new accent will often incorporate some of the following into their speech: unusual prosody in the rhythm of sentences, mixing up consonants (might instead of night), trouble with consonant clusters, distorted long vowels, and an increase in filler words (especially “uh”).

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Causes for Foreign Accent Syndrome can vary but usually involve the patient suffering some sort of head trauma. Strokes, migraines, or developmental issues can also result in the forced uptake of a different accent. This makes diagnosing Foreign Accent Syndrome rather difficult; without a clear and specific cause to a rare condition doctors are often don’t know the correct diagnosis. Most of the time doctors will just refer the patient to a neurologist, who would then refer patient to a psychologist, who would then ask the patient “how do you feel about that?” Just kidding, but most of the time psychologists are involved to determine whether the patient has a psychiatric problem or not. This involves giving the patient different tests and assessments as well as assessing abnormalities in tongue and jaw movement during speech. Various brain scans can also prove useful in finding any damage to regions in the brain that deal with melody and rhythm in speech.

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It is actually a little funny to hear people talk in an accent they might have really never known before. There are plenty of videos on YouTube where you can hear them for yourself and I encourage you to go watch them. As a final thought, I would like to point out that Foreign Accent Syndrome is still an incredibly rare condition. However, because people find it funny the condition always attracts lots of media attention, unlike some of the other rare conditions I have discussed. Food for thought.

Keep it cool,
K

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