Mysteries surrounding foreign accent syndrome

Eric Bebenov. 9/4/2020

A person suffering from foreign accent syndrome is experiencing an alteration in their accent. (Health Jade)

Imagine waking up, and when greeting someone with a “good morning”, you suddenly start speaking with an accent depicting a foreign country. Then you think to yourself, “When was the last time that I traveled to a foreign country?” or, “Do I even speak the language that resembles this accent?” Well, some scientists have attached a name to this phenomenon, known as foreign accent syndrome.

According to researchers at UT Dallas, foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is a speech disorder that alters a person’s native speech to speak as though they have a foreign accent. This could be a result of a stroke, brain lesions, multiple sclerosis or a brain injury that has imposed trauma. In some instances, however, the cause of this phenomenon is unexplained. Timing, intonation, and even tongue placement all contribute to a person’s FAS experience. A person’s abrupt change in tongue or mouth muscle movement can closely resemble that of a specific geographic region in the world, even though they might not share any ties to it.

Researchers have identified that in some instances, FAS has been a direct result of damage imposed and directed towards the Broca’s area of the brain. Broca’s area is responsible for regulating the movement of muscles that control a person’s speaking apparatus, and related movements of lips, tongue, larynx and pharynx.

Regarding FAS, it is important to consider what symptoms might emerge when one is subject to this unpredictable condition. Individuals who have difficulty pronouncing clusters of sound, have trouble “tapping” their tongue behind their top front teeth, pronounce vowels differently or even have a different pitch or tone on certain sounds, are all subject to the possibility of FAS. Most of these symptoms can last from months to years or even remain permanent.

In a case study examined by the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, the person of interest experiencing FAS had developed it as a result of a minor head trauma. It was noted that the patient deleted phonemes, which are small sets of speech sounds that are distinguished by the speakers of a particular language, in addition to speaking at a very slow rate. Her once French accent, a syllable-timed language, transformed into a speech rhythm that was qualified as stress-timed. In other words, the change in the rhythm of her speech forced her to take on a different accent that resembled a completely different geographic region.

When it comes to treating FAS, treatment revolves around exploring the main cause of the condition in an individual. Since there has been some type of deficiency in the brain that serves as a catalyst for the syndrome, patients may receive medical prescriptions to alleviate and treat the abnormality in the brain or the persisting symptoms. Additionally, a common practice suggested is speech therapy, although symptoms might not completely go away.

Overall, the minuscule number of cases associated with FAS still leaves many questions unanswered concerning this medical phenomenon. Research is still being done to identify the significant connection between neurological damage and the emergence of foreign accent syndrome. Symptoms also continue to be investigated in addition to possible advancements in treatment. Until further discoveries are made, however, medical officials will have to utilize what is available when diagnosing patients and do the best they can to minimize any negative speech alterations.

Cover Photo: (National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative)

Eric Bebenov