Becoming British Overnight: the Foreign Accent Syndrome
Becoming British Overnight: the Foreign Accent Syndrome
While greeting one of my friends who had just returned from a semester abroad, I was intrigued not by the excitement in her voice as she described London, but rather the lilting British accent she was using to recount the stories. I was baffled to imagine that she picked up such a heavy accent in such a short period of time; she herself mentioned that she hadn’t even noticed that she’d picked it up until she came back to the States. Was it possible to acquire a foreign accent so quickly?
While there seems to be little research on such cases of acquired accents after 5 months abroad, (indicating that my friend, who quickly lost her accent after a week of being back in the States, had probably been faking the whole time) there is quite a bit of investigation into a semi-related phenomenon known as foreign accent syndrome. This rare, neurologically-based speech disorder describes patients who develop a foreign accent without ever having been exposed to the accent. A 61-year-old American woman born and raised her entire life in Indiana was astonishingly left with an English cockney accent after suffering a stroke (1). Another woman, a native Japanese, suffered from a lesion to her left precentral gyrus, leading to an inversion of pitch accents and causing her speech to sound foreign, like that of a Korean (2). Though rare (50 cases in the last 60 years), foreign accent syndrome is a medical condition that occurs as a result of damage to the brain after stroke or traumatic head injury.
According to Oxford University scientists, the injury affects the part of the brain involved in speech pattern, consequently altering an individual’s speech, causing them to lengthen syllables, modify their pitch, and/or mispronounce certain sounds (1). Experiments examining lip and tongue movement demonstrated as well that some patients developed motor problems with articulation, such as difficulty making rapid tongue movements while speaking. The American Speech Language Hearing Association indicated that these often fairly predictable errors in patients contributed to the sense of a consistent “accent” (4). Curiously, the individual remains perfectly intelligible and fluent, but their speech suddenly resembles that of a non-native speaker or a speaker from a different region of the country.
Scientists have suggest that normal listeners categorize the alterations in speech as being a foreign accent simply because the change in speech pattern resembles those of stereotypical language features of other languages (5). This has caused much debate about its validity at all in the public and medical community; some people believe that sufferers must be faking their accent. What is interesting about this disease is exactly this reaction to sufferers of the syndrome; it is not the patient who has an accent, but it is the healthy listeners who hear mispronunciation and new inflections in tone and believe the patient is speaking in a different accent then before. In experiments by scientists at Oxford University, tests showed that listeners continued to hear “foreignness” even when the speech features indicating a foreign accent were removed from the scene. This was a significant conclusion to the research about the disorder because it indicated to scientists that the foreign accent speakers had not in fact acquired any accent, but that their speech alteration were in fact results of changing brain patterns in formulating their own spoken words.
Stroke-related brain damage affects the area of the brain correlated with speech production; in 2003 researchers used fMRI data to prove that the brain’s left hemisphere plays a leading role in processing language and speech functions (6). This section of the left frontal lobe just ahead of the motor cortex controlling the mouth houses the “language” area of the brain known as Broca’s area. This section controls the production of language in both a motor sense (physically producing the sounds of speech) as well as with the grammar patterns (producing complete, sensible sentences) (7). Thus, Broca’s area demonstrates the area of the brain where all the motor neurons in the brain related to speech are arranged in a certain cognitive pattern by a central pattern generator. The effects of brain trauma thereby cause an entire rearrangement of the motor symphony or “score” of chemically balanced organization inside this section of the brain. This imbalance can lead to the alterations in speech patterns that characterize foreign accent syndrome, affecting the patterns that create specific stresses and tones in speech. Foreign accent syndrome thus is a neurological disorder that disrupts automatized speech control processes but manages to rewire the brain and provide a compensatory mechanism so that the speaker can maintain a sort of phonological accuracy in speech. In this respect, the patients are unaware of the fact that they’re speaking pattern has changed at all because part of their brain has been rewired to accommodate for the damage inflicted (4). Not until an outsider mentions the change to them does a foreign-accent syndrome speaker note the change because their brain has rearranged their perception of normal speech.
Scientists note that while socially devastating to some victims, a benefit of foreign accent syndrome is that the severity of impairment is overall rather low; it is often only a temporary transition stage of recovery after stroke or head trauma (3). Some patients undergo therapy and can recover some of their speech capabilities with only slight traces of an “accent,” while others are unable to do so. This is indicative of foreign accent syndrome’s ability to evolve. As the I-function controls a person’s consciousness, but does not necessarily control choice, skill and rehabilitation is necessary to coax a patient of this disorder to reform their manner of speech to reduce the sound of the “accent” after their accident. Interestingly enough, it was mentioned in class that concentrating too hard on achieving something can often worsen performance for that situation. Perhaps because the human brain’s I-function is poor at learning and at controlling motor functions of the brain, relating back to the inability of foreign accent syndrome sufferers to completely eliminate the “accent” from their speech pattern since the accent is a permanent rearrangement of their internal cognitive patterns.
While my friend obviously is not suffering from any language deficiency, her connection to the language was completely unlike that of such foreign accent syndrome patients. Her acquirement of the British accent was inflicted due to being immersed in the foreign culture and picking up the colloquial accent of her surroundings. Her immersion caused her to self-inflict a change in her brain as to what sounded like proper speech; similarly, her return adjusted her speech back to that of the American locals around here, removing the presence of her “accent.”
(1) "Stroke Gives Woman British Accent." BBC NEWS 25 Nov. 2003. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3235934.stm>.
(2) Takayama K et al. "A case of foreign accent syndrome without aphasia caused by a lesion of the left precentral gyrus" Neurology 43. (1993). 1361-3.
(3) Coleman, John, and Jennifer Gurd. "Introduction to the Theme Issue on Foreign Accent Syndrome." Journal of Neurolinguistics 19 (2006): 341-345. University of Oxford, UK. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VDV-4K5ST60-1&_user=400777&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000018819&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=400777&md5=174757e87d833c0557a08656e2eca6d3> .
(4) Garst, D., & Katz, W. (2006, Aug. 15). Foreign accent syndrome. The ASHA Leader, 11(10), 10-11, 31. < http://www.asha.org/about/publications/leader-online/archives/2006/060815/f060815c.htm >.
(5) Blumstein, Sheila E., Michael P. Alexander, John H. Ryalls, William Katz, and Barbara Dworetzky. "On the Nature on the Foreign Accent Syndrome: a Case Study." Brain and Language 31 (1987): 215-244.
(6) Bookheimer, Susan, Meena Garg, Lina Badr, and John Grinstead. "Left Side of Brain Activates Speech From Birth." Science Daily 4 Dec. 2003. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/12/031204075435.htm>.
(7) Boeree, C. George. (2004). Speech and the Brain. <http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/speechbrain.html>.