Monday, September 22, 2014

Foreign accent syndrome

Recently I made a post about things that you see in movies involving brain injury that don't really happen in real life. But I don't want to spoil all the fun, so I thought I would make a post about something cool that actually can happen in a brain injury that you wouldn't think was real, but it is. And that's foreign accent syndrome.

I recently saw a case of this, and I talked to a neurologist who told me she's actually seen many cases in her career, Although most of these involved stroke. Some cases she told me about:

1) an Italian American man who had started speaking with a Haitian lilt

2) A native Californian who started speaking with a British accent

And all of these cases, the patient had never even been to the country whose accent they had adopted. Apparently the etiology involves damage resulting in altered pitch or mispronounced syllables, causing speech patterns to be distorted in a non-specific manner. So it's just a coincidence that your speech sounds like it comes from a specific place.

As far as I'm concerned, it's a good thing that can come out of a stroke or brain injury if you are an American. As Jason Lee said, Americans totally got screwed on accents.


  1. Another really interesting thing about accents is that you can actually develop a foreign accent in your native tongue. For instance, I came to Canada as a child of 8 or 9, and so my native tongue was very established, and I didn't speak any English prior to arriving in Canada. Now, roughly 20 years later, I speak unaccented English as my primary language, and apparently have a heavy foreign accent when speaking my native tongue (which I can't hear, but natives of my country can). Weird!

  2. I helped care for a bilingual patient who was grief-stricken that he could no longer speak English after brain injury. At every visit he told us, "I can't speak English!!"

    We repeatedly explained to him that he was actually speaking English (with some progressively improving impairment) and that we would have been unable to communicate with him if he were actually speaking his native language. He didn't believe us.

    @Anon: My mother left her native country as a young adult. When we visit, people there tell me my mom speaks with an accent in her native language!

  3. "Americans totally got screwed on accents."

    I'm not quite sure how to interpret that. I was talking to some folk earlier today about Bostonian accents. I'm not sure how long it would take me irl to figure out why something very expensive would cost "a nominal egg" or that P.S.D.S. is not really a medical condition, but if you have P.S.D.S. - you probably wear earrings now and then . . .

  4. Maybe the people are having flashbacks to a past life? Wouldn't that be cool to all of a sudden realize that you were Haitian or British in a former life?

    Ah--the things I think about.