How Foreign Accent Syndrome Works

What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
Head injuries are one potential cause.
Head injuries are one potential cause.
Reggie Casagrande/Getty Images

You know that deeply embarrassing thing that happens when you go into an "ethnic" restaurant with your dad and he inexplicably slips into a terrible rendition of a Chinese/Thai/Indian accent while ordering? That's not foreign-accent syndrome. That's just a mysterious condition that affects dads. Nobody knows why. Something hormonal probably.

This common condition would only be considered foreign-accent syndrome if your dad started in with his accent but then couldn't stop. Not in the restaurant, not in the car on the way home, not on the phone — never. When you're done shuddering at this thought, take a moment to consider how it feels for your dad. It's almost as though he's become somebody else, and it's not clear whether he'll ever get his old, familiar accent back.

Typically, such a transformation doesn't come out of the blue. It's usually triggered by some event, such as head trauma, a stroke, the onset of multiple sclerosis or a mental illness. But sometimes doctors are flummoxed by the appearance of foreign accent syndrome, as they are in the case of Lisa Alamia, for instance. Jaw surgery doesn't typically cause FAS. In fact, there are no other recorded cases of this outcome from such a routine operation.

Still, the sample size for FAS is so small that it's hard to establish a set of norms for it. It's not as though people always end up sounding the same way. There have been Japanese speakers who suddenly began sounding Korean, Brits who are mistaken for French, Scottish people who developed South African accents overnight and Spaniards who are assumed to hail from Hungary [source: Stollznow].

One woman from Plymouth, England, came down with a migraine so severe she landed in the emergency room. Upon recovering, she was stunned to discover she had a Chinese accent [source: UT Dallas]. As an English Caucasian, this was hard to explain. Things can get really embarrassing for victims of FAS, especially if everybody thinks they're being racist.

Experts recommend having a well-rounded team of specialists diagnose the problem:

  • Neurologist: Looks at the functioning of the nervous system
  • Radiologist: Specializes in the imaging technologies that can help determine where a problem lies
  • Neuropsychologist: Examines the links between thought, behavior and brain function
  • Clinical psychologist: Looks at ways of reducing stress and other emotional and psychological imbalances
  • Speech-language pathologist: An expert in the assessment and reduction of speech disorders

[source: UT Dallas]

Once they've diagnosed FAS, the team supplies the patient with a T-shirt that says, "I can't help it. Sorry." Or, at least, they should.

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