Buckeye resident Michelle Myers went to bed one night in 2015 with a crippling migraine and woke up with a thick British accent. Despite never having gone abroad, Myers has been speaking with an accent ever since. So what gives?
The 45-year-old former beauty queen was diagnosed with a medical condition called “Foreign Accent Syndrome,” a rare disorder usually associated with neurological damage. Only 100 cases of the disorder have been documented since 1907, but Myers claims it’s happened to her twice before — when she woke up with Irish and Australian accents, which lasted only a few weeks at a time.
Corriane Rogalsky and Myra Schatzki from ASU’s Department of Hearing and Speech Science have been keeping tabs on the two-year-old case, which recently reappeared on many news outlets. ASU Now asked them to give their take on this fascinating phenomenon.
Question: Have you ever heard of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) and what do you think the cause was after you read Michelle Myers' story?
Schatzki: I have heard of a couple of cases, one in Illinois and one in Texas. Both women had dental surgery and developed FAS.
Rogalsky: Yes, although it is a very rare disorder. There have been just over 100 cases in the world reported in the past century. Most cases result from damage to parts of the brain involved in speech production (i.e. talking), usually due to a stroke, neurosurgery, or head trauma. Other disruptions to the supply of neurotransmitters to certain brain regions also have resulted in this condition. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of this particular case, but based on the article, migraines were the cause. It is well documented that for some individuals, migraines can affect the brain such that they lead to temporary speech impairments (i.e. aphasia). It is rare though that the particular speech impairment results in the individual sounding as if they are from a foreign country in which they may have never spent time.
In most cases, and likely in this case, the brain networks that support speech production have been disrupted. They have been disrupted in a combination of ways that leads to the perception that the person is talking with a foreign accent. An accent is a factor of many things, including the rate of speech, exactly how vowels are articulated, and other pitch and rhythmic qualities of speech. In FAS, changes in the speech networks of the brain lead to changes in the control of speech movements in such a way that they sound as if they are speaking with a particular accent.
Q: With this particular syndrome, does the person’s original accent eventually come back or is the new one permanent?
Schatzki: The cases of this syndrome are rare and speech therapy can help to some degree. Just like someone who loses some aspects of language from a stroke or a head injury, with therapy, some may return to premorbid levels and some will get better but only to a degree. If it’s psychogenic, there’s a greater likelihood that there would be a complete resolution as compared to something that’s neurogenic, like the above example.
Q: Is this similar to when a person lives abroad for many years and comes back with an accent?
Schatzki: Someone acquiring an accent from being aboard is something different. It is not pathogenic. For example, someone learning the Irish accent is exposed to the intonation, rate, word and syllable stress features of how English is pronounced in that environment. The need to assimilate into the culture with the use of that accent increases the ability to be understood in that environment. Eventually, when the person returns home, their primary accent will return, but they can voluntarily access the secondary accent when needed.
Rogalsky: Yes, the brain is doing something very interesting! As Myra mentioned, your brain is being exposed to different speech sounds in the new region or country. Your speech production brain networks do not work alone; they are highly connected to and intertwined with networks that are involved in speech perception (i.e. listening to someone talk). As our speech perception networks become tuned to the accents of the new environment, our speech production networks are also altered, and therefore our accent will change to better match what we hear in our new environment.
Q: Are there any other strange disorders similar to Foreign Accent Syndrome that might be interesting to note?
Schatzki: Post-traumatic stress disorders can contribute to the changes in the fluency of one’s speech resulting in a stutter. This is a psychogenic effect of PTSD.
Rogalsky: There are many other rare language disorders that are quite fascinating. One of particular interest to me is called pure word deafness. Like FAS, it is a very rare disorder. It usually results from multiple strokes or head injuries such that auditory regions in the temporal lobes of both the right and left hemispheres are damaged (although other types of damage have also been reported). Individuals with this condition have normal hearing and pass hearing tests just fine, but are what is called “functionally deaf for speech.” When someone speaks to them, the individual can hear the sounds, but cannot determine that it is speech. Individuals with this disorder have reported hearing “buzzing” or “noise” when someone is in fact speaking to them (they can however use lip reading and other compensation mechanisms). In some ways, the descriptions remind me of how Charlie Brown’s teacher in the Peanuts cartoon sounds to all of us.
Q: Where can we learn more about language, accent modification and the brain?
Schatzki: The American Speech Hearing Association provides free information on accents and accent modification. At ASU, I offer a course in accent modification for international students and professionals who want to improve their pronunciation. Students acquire the phonetic inventory of English and learn prosodic or intonation patterns that will help them become more comprehensible. The course, SHS 461, is offered in the fall and spring semesters.
Rogalsky: Our Department of Speech and Hearing Science offers several courses focused on how language is acquired by children, and how language abilities are affected by changes in the brain due to many factors, from genetics and developmental disorders such as dyslexia and autism, to traumatic brain injury, dementia, and stroke. A great place to start is SHS 230: Peering into the Brain. In this course, students will take a hands-on look "under the hood” to cover the basics of healthy brain functioning and typical cognitive and language processing, as well as the impact of brain damage and brain-based disorders, such as autism, dementia, and aphasia.
Top photo courtesy of YouTube.com.