How Foreign Accent Syndrome Works

Can a Syndrome Really Change Your Accent?
Throw one bit of this anatomy off, and you might wind up with a speech problem that sounds like a new accent.
Throw one bit of this anatomy off, and you might wind up with a speech problem that sounds like a new accent.
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For most of us, talking is second nature. We don't even think about how complex the process is. But to get words to come out of your mouth sounding the way they need to in a given context requires exquisite control of your jaw, tongue, lip and larynx muscles. If anything messes with this finely calibrated team, your speech could end up sounding funny. Need a good example? Have a little too much to drink, and you'll start slurring your words because of a loss of muscle control.

Take vowels, for instance. Where we place our tongue and how we shape it can result in incredibly subtle variations in the way we pronounce vowels. And shifts in vowel sounds are key to different accents. Lose a bit of control over your tongue, and you could end up sounding, well, foreign.

This appears to be at the heart of foreign accent syndrome. It's not that a person recovers from a stroke with a brand-new cultural identity. It's that the stroke has impaired his control over the fine motor skills required to sound the way he used to. This impairment changes the way his vowels sound above all, which in turn leads listeners to assume that the person has a foreign accent [source: Nickels].

But why would a Texas woman end up with a British accent or a Swedish woman sound German? They don't. Not really. The truth is that an accent lies in the ear of the listener. In many cases of FAS, listeners can't agree on the provenance of the new accent. Some people thought that Astrid, the Swedish FAS sufferer, was French, not German. To demonstrate this phenomenon, researchers conducted a study in which they asked people to identify the accent of a person with FAS. The answers were, quite literally, all over the map — some said French, others African, still others Italian, Welsh, Chinese ... you get the picture [source: Nickels].

So, to be accurate, foreign accent syndrome should really be called "different" accent syndrome. But that doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

If reduced control of the muscles that help you articulate speech explains the onset of FAS, it sounds like that must be a neurogenic explanation. What about those rare instances of psychogenic FAS? What's behind the accent change for some people experiencing a psychotic episode?

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