The Rare Syndrome That Could Change Your Accent

Someone born and raised in the United Kingdom who decides to move to the United States later in life may become accustomed to endless compliments on their charming British accent. Similarly, you also have your own unique way of speaking. You might find it interesting to know how your accent developed in the first place. 

Accents are formed by the motor patterns of speaking an individual learns based on their surroundings and social background, as explained by Leeds Beckett University. Language acquisition begins early in life as a baby listens and absorbs sounds in their environment. A baby's brain will be able to distinguish between different verbal stimuli as early as 6 months, preparing for when the vocal cords are able to produce sounds (per Smithsonian Magazine).

Repeatedly hearing sounds in the environment will strengthen the synapses in the brain that promote the development and understanding of language. Synapses that aren't being used are pruned from the brain's network. "Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic. You don't think about it, like walking," Patricia Kuhl, director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning at the University of Washington, told Smithsonian Magazine.

 If you were told that there was a syndrome that could change someone's natural accent, would you believe it? Believe it or not, there's a medical condition called foreign accent syndrome (FAS) that fits this description.

What is foreign accent syndrome?

Albeit a rare condition, foreign accent syndrome occurs when someone begins speaking with an accent that's different from their native speech. Symptoms of FAS can appear when an area of the brain that controls speech is affected by a brain injury, like a stroke or head trauma. Other diseases that damage brain tissue, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), can also lead to FAS, according to Ted Lowenkopf, a neurologist and director of the Providence Stroke Center in Portland (per NPR).

As mentioned in a 2016 article published in Case Reports in Psychiatry, a patient who experienced a stroke in the left hemisphere of their brain was the first to be reported with the disorder by French neurologist Pierre Marie in 1907. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, speech and language are largely influenced by the left hemisphere, including Broca's area and Wernicke's area. There have been more than 100 case reports of individuals with FAS since its initial emergence. 

Among the modified accents reported in patients are Japanese to Korean, British English to French, and American English to British English, as shared by The University of Texas at Dallas. When an individual has FAS, the way they pronounce words, vowels, and tenses can suddenly change. Their prosody may be emphasized when using multisyllabic words, they may have trouble with consonant clusters, and their consonants and vowels may be distorted or substituted.

How is foreign accent syndrome diagnosed?

As you can imagine, suddenly speaking in an unfamiliar accent can be frightening for anyone. With it being such a rare condition, an individual with foreign accent syndrome may not be sure where to turn to identify the cause of their symptoms. 

According to Healthline, it's recommended that anyone experiencing FAS symptoms consult their primary care physician, who will ask them about their symptoms and examine their muscles while they speak. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan can then be scheduled, which will provide detailed images of the brain that allow brain abnormalities to be identified. Psychiatric assessments can be used to screen for any co-existing mental disorders, like schizophrenia or depression (per MedicalNewsToday). Lumbar punctures may also be recommended to detect symptoms of central nervous system conditions. 

An individual with symptoms of FAS will likely be referred to a neurologist and a speech-language pathologist. A neurologist can determine whether someone's brain activity is contributing to their change in accent by examining the MRI and CT scans. To assess symptoms further, a speech-language pathologist can take recordings of a person's speech and rule out other speech disorders. There are some cases where the cause of FAS cannot be determined, including one example of a woman whose condition was triggered by dental surgery, as described by MedicalNewsToday.

Can foreign accent syndrome be treated?

The appropriate treatment approach for foreign accent syndrome can differ depending on the root cause of the disorder. When multiple sclerosis is the contributing factor to FAS, a doctor may prescribe medications that slow the progression of MS as treatment (per Healthline). If the reason for the condition is a brain tumor or blood clot in the brain, surgery is likely to be necessary instead. Anti-clotting medications can be prescribed to those who develop FAS after a stroke, and anti-seizure medications can be prescribed to those who have sustained serious brain injuries. 

Someone struggling with a change of accent may benefit from attending speech therapy, where they can practice speaking in their native accent by engaging in vocal exercises. There can be a sense of grief associated with losing one's identity for people with FAS, and others may believe they are faking their accent. Attending counseling and support groups may reduce the adverse effects of FAS on a person's mental health. 

After learning about the condition, you might be wondering if someone's accent ever goes back to normal once they have been affected by FAS. As it turns out, it depends on the circumstances. For example, individuals with FAS based on psychological factors have a higher likelihood of regaining their original accent, as explained by WebMD. However, the foreign accent may stick around for months to years in some individuals and can be permanent in some other cases (per Stewarts).