"foreign" accent syndrome

OK, I just finished watching a segment on ABC Primetime about Foreign Accent Syndrome, a condition I’d heard of, but until now I hadn’t had the opportunity to hear speakers with it. Anecdotal evidence of FAS usually identifies an adult English speaker suddenly (usually following trauma) adopting a foreign accent, and being unable to speak using his or her natural accent. Interestingly, these patients are sometimes characterized as sounding like particular foreign accents or other English dialects. The textbook case is of a woman in England who suddenly sounded German after a head injury during the blitz. The two patients on the ABC segment were associated as sounding Russian in one case and French in another. Hopefully this link will work.

The first time I ever heard of this condition, I thought, how could somebody just “sound German” or “sound Russian” all the time? One implication is that the patient has a latent Russian phonology or German phonology neural structure which, post injury, becomes the only capable neural structure. Of course, this must be wrong, since most English speakers don’t get enough exposure to develop a reliable Russian or German phonological module. So, it’s a Mystery.

I think (part of) the real answer is, they don’t really “sound Russian”, but the people who hear them have no other way of describing it – basically they hear one striking phonological Shibboleth and associate the patient’s FAS with the nationality attached to that Shibboleth. I say this for several reasons.

First, the “Russian-sounding” woman had phonological features of a wide variety of accents, including what might be constured as Russian, Irish, AAVE, Southern American, and her own upper Midwest US. Likewise, the “French-sounding” man had odd prosody and what might have been a French -sounding uvular /r/, but otherwise was another mish mash of other accents.

Second, and crucially, it seems like the syntax and lexicon in these patients are untouched. No funny word order, no inappropriate omissions or insertions of articles, no lexical items from across the pond. Only the phonology is messed with.

Third, (maybe as crucially?), the phonology is really all over the place. Some unflapped /t/, some /ʌ/ coming out as [ʊ], some /e/ appearing as [i] (and I don’t mean e as in see, I mean [e] as in say, /se:/).

So my hunch is this: the patients are not really suddenly adopting a particular foreign accent. They have lost the mapping from each phoneme to its appropriate contextually-determined allophone (with perhaps some orthographic interference involved). In other words, for each segment, the patient produces some allophone of it, but not necessarily the appropriate one. To someone else’s ear, this sounds randomly foreign, and some of the features actually align to a known foreign accent. These identifiable feature are the Shibboleths that prompt listeners to think, “hey, he sounds French!”.

One last question is, wouldn’t all patients have the same exact traumatic foreign accent? No, unless they have the same exact native accent to begin with and the same exact brain injury.

12 thoughts on “"foreign" accent syndrome

  1. Emmanuel Ruellan ([emanɥɛl ʁɥelã])

    I’m not sure I understand your point.

    If “for each segment, the patient produces some allophone of it, but not necessarily the appropriate one”, how come a speaker of English produces a uvular fricative (or approximant) ? Such a sound isn’t an allophone of /r/ in English, is it ?

  2. Bob Kennedy

    You’re right – a uvular /r/ would not be one of the allophones of this particular speaker (though, aside, some Scottish dialects do have a uvular /r/). I guess I’d have amend my theory by saying that the speaker produces some known allophone of each phoneme, even a non-native one in some cases.

    Unfortunately the link I give in the post leads to an incomplete video of the story, and the supposedly French-sounding patient is not included in it. Luckily I also taped the whole thing to VHS, so I’ll check back and try to get a better picture of what his /r/ actually sounded like.

  3. Claire Bowern

    I assumed this was mostly a fine motor control issue, not a linguistic knowledge/mapping issue. That is, they have trouble with the targets because their articulators are no longer responding the way they expect them to.

    One way to tell between the two would be to see if the ‘foreign accent syndrome’ wears off. If it does, that would imply that they’ve learned to compensate for the difference in articulator response.

  4. Bob Kennedy

    Turns out one of the patients in the clip apparently did overcome his affliction, but that part of the segment is not in the online version. Whether he returned to his original accent, or to some “less-foreign sounding” variety, is not clear. However, couldn’t this wearing off of the syndrome be consistent with both compensation to the difference in articulator response, as well as with (implausible though it may sound) learning a new phonemes-to-allophones mapping?

  5. Toni Borowsky

    Karen Croot, a psycholinguist at Usyd and some phoneticians at Macquarie University also in Sydney have done some work on these cases and concluded as far as I remember, that is about motor control. The speaker affected loses ‘phonetic fluency’-ie smooth routines- their speech is slower and sort of like a robot- getting from one place to another. So there are intrusive r-like glides for example introduced into the speech of an Australian kid with a brain injury. It sounds VERY robotic/mechanical.

    The Australian kid in their study did get his orginal accent back- and they reported other cases also improved- as their ‘smoothness’ of speaking returned.

  6. Rick Wojcik

    Is there a clear distinction between FAS and any of the various types of aphasia? It strikes me that FAS may just be a fairly mild form of aphasia. Also, it would be interesting to see if there are any perceptual distortions that accompany misarticulations.

    As for the explanation of what is causing it, we must remember that no modern phonological theory (except perhaps Stampean Natural Phonology) makes a serious attempt to link constraints on phonology directly with constraints on pronunciation. Linguists are still very tentative about the nature of the relation between their grammars and linguistic behavior. Hence, it is unclear how one can explain it in linguistic terms any better than one can explain aphasia or children’s babbling. For that, one needs a theory of phonology that clearly links so-called grammatical knowledge to speech production.

  7. Julieanne Doyle

    I recently lost my speech, oonly for it to return with an accent I am looking for any one who can help me understand what may be foing on or put me in contact with some who might be willing to help me

  8. Mike Patrick

    In 2003 my wife went through a rapid detox in a medical facility lasting 10 days for addiction to xanax. following detox she was staggering and falling down. she then started talking with a strong german like accent. she also had seizure like episodes. these lasted for over a year and a half with regular frequency. she still has these seizure like episodes
    occasionaly. the german accent is still present. we live in a small remote town and have not had much luck in finding anyone to give us information. weve watched 2 shows on tv about foreign accent syndrome and thats how we found this site. we are very frustrated by this
    condition and would welcome any help, advice, info. mr_p62@hotmail.com

  9. Mary Ann B Ezzeh

    I have Foreign Accent Sydrome for one year now if yo all are correct I should get my natural voice back a southern accent I was born and raized in Mississippi

  10. Jeannie

    I also suffer from this FLS, but mines comes and go, if i am under a great deal of stress of is i don’t get the rest that my body needs, my voice will change to a jamicia type voice, thats what people say it sounds like, to me, i am just not able to pronouce my words clearly, i was taught to do self-hyponosis to help me with this, and it works for me, but i have very bad body spasms, that are very intense, and then my voice will change back, but it will go back and forth. I am located in GA and have yet to find a doctor that can give me more answer. I have been doing alot of research myself, and i am still puzzled, i am able to work, but if my voice changes while i am working, people look at me in disbelief, as if i am playing around, i have become more secure with my disorder, but i must admit, sometimes it is a big pain, just to have people looking at you and staring, whisperin, all because they have never seen anything like it before.


    New documentary series on a major cable network is looking for people who have experienced Foreign Accent Syndrome. This is a serious medical program that will focus on hard to diagnose conditions. Please email me for more info!

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