How Foreign Accent Syndrome Works


Mind Over Patter?
FAS typically fades with the underlying cause.
FAS typically fades with the underlying cause.
Tim McGuire/Getty Images

As mentioned previously, most cases of foreign accent syndrome are considered to be neurogenic in origin. In fact, until recently, it was thought that FAS was a completely neurogenic phenomenon. But specialists are now conceding that there are some cases in which no damage or impairment of the brain can be found. In these instances, FAS is often found to occur in tandem with a mental illness.

In some such cases, FAS doesn't just manifest in the form of vowel changes or shifts in speed of articulation, but also in the use of a different vocabulary. So, for instance, an American experienced an episode of FAS in which he not only had a British accent, but also used words like "bloke" instead of "friend," and "loo" instead of "toilet."

In another case, a Dutch woman with FAS developed a French accent and even spoke Dutch using French syntax and sometimes French words, sounding convincingly like a French person in the process of learning Dutch. The fact that she taught the Dutch language to French people was the obvious source for her knowledge of how such a person would sound [source: Keulen].

People with neurogenic cases of FAS don't insert foreign words or use foreign syntax. Neurogenic FAS is a problem of articulation alone. This difference points to why it's important to correctly diagnose the origin of a case of foreign accent syndrome. The treatment of a neurogenic FAS is a specialized form of speech therapy known as "accent reduction techniques" — i.e., retraining the larynx, tongue and lips to articulate the way they once did [source: UT Dallas].

This would be pointless for psychogenic FAS since the syndrome in such cases is a symptom of mental illness. Treatment of psychogenic FAS then requires treatment of the underlying illness; FAS often disappears as a patient recovers from an episode. The length of the episode and, consequently, the FAS, varies widely according to the illness and individual; however, for people whose FAS did fade away with an episode, the syndrome lasted for a few months [source: Keulen].

To make matters more complicated, it seems there's also something called a "mixed variant of FAS," in which the origin of the syndrome is considered to be a combination of psychogenic and neurogenic causes [source: Keulen].

As medical understanding and diagnostic tools advance, perhaps the differences between psychogenic and neurogenic causation will erode a bit. Some recent studies have found that certain mental illnesses can be caused by the immune system's response to infections, showing that sometimes, at least, the mind/body divide is not as pronounced as we might think [source: Velasquez-Manoff].

Author's Note: How Foreign Accent Syndrome Works

A friend of mine who grew up in the rural U.S. was once in a bad car accident that left her in a coma. When she woke, she couldn't speak a word of English, but instead chatted away in German. This seemed like an insoluble mystery until her mother remembered that the family had spent a year in Germany when my friend was 4 years old. She hadn't spoken the language since, but somehow the brain trauma from the accident brought it to the fore. As she recovered, the German faded and she returned to speaking fluent English. This phenomenon is not foreign accent syndrome. In fact, it's relatively common and has its own cool name: bilingual aphasia.

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Sources

  • Beck, Julie. "The Mysteries of Foreign-Accent Syndrome." The Atlantic. Jan. 27, 2016. (Nov. 14, 2016) http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/01/the-mysteries-of-foreign-accent-syndrome/429276/
  • Bhandari, Hanul Srinivas. "Transient foreign accent syndrome." BMJ Case Reports. Nov. 9, 2011. (Nov. 14, 2016) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3214216/
  • Friedman, Megan. "A Texas Woman Woke Up From Jaw Surgery With a British Accent." Esquire. June 23, 2016. (Nov. 14, 2016) http://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/health/news/a46131/foreign-accent-syndrome-british-accent/
  • Keulen, Stefanie et al. "Foreign Accent Syndrome As a Psychogenic Disorder: A Review." Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Vol. 10. Page 168. April 27, 2016. (Nov. 14, 2016) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4846654/
  • Nickels, Lyndsey. "Explainer: what is foreign accent syndrome?" The Conversation. June 19, 2013. (Nov. 15, 2016) http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-foreign-accent-syndrome-15295
  • Shannon, Lucy. "Tasmanian woman Leanne Rowe wakes from car crash with rare Foreign Accent Syndrome." Australian Broadcasting Corporation. June 16, 2013. (Nov. 15, 2016) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-06-16/tasmanian-woman-wakes-after-car-crash-speaks-with-a-french-accen/4757146
  • Stollznow, Karen. "Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic." Palgrave Macmillan. 2014. (Nov. 14, 2016) http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137404862_7
  • UT Dallas. "Diagnosis & Treatment." Foreign Accent Syndrome. (Nov. 16, 2016) https://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/diagnosis.html
  • UT Dallas. "FAS Stories." Foreign Accent Syndrome. (Nov. 17, 2016) https://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/FASstories.html
  • UT Dallas. "What is Foreign Accent Syndrome?" Foreign Accent Syndrome. (Nov. 15, 2016) https://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/
  • Velasquez-Manoff, Moises. "When the Body Attacks the Mind." The Atlantic. July/August 2016. (Nov. 17, 2016) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/when-the-body-attacks-the-mind/485564/

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