Have you ever talked with someone who has an accent different from yours, and felt tempted to pick it up? You spend a few hours with them, and you almost want to say “y’all” or enunciate certain vowels differently. This is called code switching. And a while a pretty interesting phenomenon, what if we took it one step further? What if you picked up a foreign accent and could not help but continue to speak in a dialect very different from your own?
Recently (and by recently, I mean this afternoon), I listened to a podcast by Stuff You Should Know titled “How Foreign Accent Syndrome Works”. It was remarkable, and may have brought to light just as many questions as answers, but it served to inform me about the crazy syndrome. In rare cases, often following trauma, an individual may pick up, and only speak in, and accent different from the one they had always had. Accoding to the University of Texas at Dallas, “Foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is a speech disorder that causes a sudden change to speech so that a native speaker is perceived to speak with a “foreign” accent”(https://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/). A Dutch woman begins speaking like a Parisian, or a woman from the United States starts to sound like she is from Great Britain. And while you think this could be comical, the connections between accents and community are so strong that FAS can place a strain on relationships.
Foreign Accent Syndrome has largely been considered a neurogenic syndrome, rooted in the brain, and altering non grammatical parts of speech. Here is a video of Karen Butler, from Oregon, who began to speak in a dialect that is described as “a bit British with a Transylvania twang” following dental surgery. One day she spoke like your average Oregonian, and the next, she didn’t. Historically, there are a few cases on record, such as a Norwegian woman named Astrid, who during WWII was hit by German shrapnel, and ironically picked up a German accent. This, unfortunately, led to much tension in her community, which at the time was largely distrusting of Germans following a German occupation. She was isolated by many of her peers, and could not seem to do anything about her plight, even after neurological visits.
So why does this occur? Many believe it is due to trauma which has hit a sensitive part of the brain which controls the intricate aspects of language. Others thing that force is not necessary, and that psychological stressors, such as anxiety, could prompt Foreign Accent Syndrome.
The debate continues, however, whether those afflicted have even actually acquired a new accent. Instead, the part of their brain which focuses on pronunciation and intricate language details could have been damaged, leaving them emphasizing certain sounds or unable to pronounce other vocalizations. The podcast gave the example of L’s and R’s, citing the difficulty some cultures may have in differentiating the two sounds in their speech. Therefore, if someone with FAS is speaking with such patterns, another person may believe them to simply have a Chinese accent, for instance.
Whatever the cause and the verdict on accent or mere linguistic issues, I would highly recommend looking further into Foreign Accent Syndrome for some interesting thoughts.
Here is another interesting article, from The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/01/the-mysteries-of-foreign-accent-syndrome/429276/