fas pt. 2

Last week I wrote about a segment on Foreign Accent Syndrome I saw on ABC Primetime, hoping to make two general points: one, about why the word “foreign” has come to be used as a label for the condition, and two, whether the condition relates to motor control or linguistic knowledge. This post is intended partly as an update concerning the above second point. I’ve also been contacted by a reader whose cousin is an FAS patient, and the details she provides of his case can certainly enrich the discussion.

In my earlier post, I’d suggested that the symptoms of FAS were indicative of a loss of phoneme > allophone mapping, but commenters tended toward seeing it as indicative of a loss of fine motor control. Looking back on the evidence that’s available, it seems like both (or either) could be implicated, depending on the specifics of the case.

To begin, I think a third point to add to the discussion is that, like other types of aphasia, FAS is associated with a set of possible symptoms, but no two patients present the same exact profile. Unlike other types of aphasia, FAS appears to affect only accent-level aspects of language – no telegraphic speech (loss of articles, prepositions, and/or functional affixes) and no hesitation or disfluency. Nevertheless, the exact symptoms of FAS still differ from patient to patient, because of individual differences in several dimensions (notably, the exact location and extent of the injury).

The consequence of this is that it is very hard to predict Patient B’s behavior based on the behavior of Patient A. Also, it could be that some symptoms indicate loss of motor control, while others indicate loss of linguistic knowledge. I came to the conclusions about the loss of phonological knowledge in my earlier post based only on the two subjects featured in the ABC piece, but clearly other patients (such as the Australian subject mentioned by an anonymous commenter) present symptoms more consistent with loss of motor control.

The new case I learned of this weekend has some aspects that indicate loss of motor control and some that (might) indicate an impact on linguistic knowledge. Here’s what I’ve learned so far: the patient had a sudden onset of the linguistic behavior, accompanied by frequent falling, both of which were ultimately attributed to a mild stroke. He has since recovered much function, but the FAS remains, and he has some numbness on one side.

His cousin describes in email that his FAS is marked by ending lots of words with “a”, like “milka”. (Also, he always says “Ya” rather than “yes”). This sounds like his phonological knowledge has been impacted. But these effects appear to worsen when he is tired, which suggests a motor control impact. Meanwhile, if he tries to sing or speak in a low voice, the speech symptoms disappear, which I see as another indication of phonological knowledge being impacted. In my reply, I asked the reader to see what would happen if her cousin tried to affect a British or some other accent. My reasoning here is that singing and portraying some non-natural accent might both involve an intentional type of speech control which this subject’s condition has left intact.

Here’s a summary of the kinds of evidence that might be seen in FAS patients, along with plausible interpretations.

  1. A scenario in which the patient has an unsystematic distribution of allophonic targets would indicate a loss of motor control. For example, suppose the patient might use any of a tap, flap, [t], [d], aspirated [t], or glottal stop (and many articulatorily dispersed variants of each) for any intervocalic /t/.
  2. A scenario in which the patient has a systematically novel distribution of allophonoic targets would indicate a loss or disruption of phonological knowledge. For example, suppose the patient ceases to use a flap intervocalically for /t/, but consistently uses [t] in such a context. Or maps all vowels spelled with a particular character to the same phoneme (so but and put rhyme). This is what I detected in one of the subjects on the ABC piece.
  3. Recovery from the condition, I still think, is consistent with both loss of motor control and loss of phonological knowledge (though the latter may seem implausible to those of us schooled with the Critical Period Hypothesis).
  4. Robotic, effortful speech of the type described by the anoynmous commenter is consistent more with motor control issues than with linguistic issues. I should note that again that the subjects on the ABC segment were not robotic, monotonic, or effortful in their FAS speech.
  5. A scenario in which the symptoms worsen under fatigue is consistent with a loss of motor control.
  6. A scenario in which the symptoms disappear under intentional or purposeful conditions (feigning an accent, modulating pitch, speaking a second language) is consistent with an impact on phonological knowledge.

Ultimately I think it’s possible that there is more than one type of FAS – an articulatory FAS (like the Australian subject), a phonological FAS (like the Michigan woman on the ABC piece), and a combination of the two.  I may also just be wrong (neurophonology not being my training) so I welcome further input.

6 thoughts on “fas pt. 2

  1. Toni Borowsky

    Stutterers often don’t stutter if they sign, or do tricks like play with pitch. It doesn’t follow that stuttering is not a motor control problem, so why does it follow that a FAS sufferer who can do this evinces a disorder of his phonological knowledge?

    A loss of motor control would result in systematic errors. Routines are lost and pronunication of sequences becomes a matter of stringing together individual phonemes. Some system is there- just smoothing aspects of the routines are lost.

    The fact that a person ends a word with a final consonantal cluster with a vowel can easily be the result of a motor problem- the careful pronunciation of a consonant will mean that consonant is released. This can sound if overly careful as if there’s a vowel.

  2. Rick Wojcik

    Bob, why do you keep referring to this as a problem with phonological “knowledge”? What is it that you think the speaker doesn’t know, and how would the loss of this knowledge cause a speaker to consistently misarticulate speech sounds? Is there any perceptual impairment? Do the speakers not notice that they are mispronouncing words? Are they aware of the sounds that they have difficulty mispronouncing?

    Your comments about aphasia refer to grammatical aphasia, but there are also systematic misarticulations associated with aphasia. This phenomenon was first systematically studied by Roman Jakobson in his monograph “Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals”, which essentially became the basis for Chomsky and Halle’s somewhat misguided theory of “markedness”.

    David Stampe proposed a theory of “Natural Phonology” in the mid-1960’s, which held that child language acquisition was primarily a process of suppressing misarticulations caused by what he called “natural processes”. Natural processes are direct constraints on articulation, not necessarily “knowledge” constraints. Brain damage can cause a loss of those constraints, which would lead to a reappearance of misarticulations that occurred during early language acquisition. Hence, adults suffering aphasic disorders would exhibit articulatory regression, as Jakobson’s studies showed to be the case. The question I have about FAS is whether it fits the patterns that Jakobson originally observed and that Stampe’s theory predicts will occur with brain damage.

  3. Rick Wojcik

    Whoops. I misspoke in the previous message. Brain damage does not cause a loss of the constraints on articulation, but on the suppressions of those constraints.

    To give a concrete example, consider devoicing of obstruents. According to Stampe’s theory, this constraint is physiologically motivated in that the articulation of obstruents builds up pressure in the speech cavity, causing a pressure drop across the glottis. If the brain treats general devoicing as an articulatory strategy–a constraint on articulation–then the young language learner would have to suppress that strategy in cases where the speaker needed to produce voiced sounds. An English speaker would need to suppress it for syllable-final positions, because voiced sounds occur in the target language, English, in those positions. A German or Russian speaker would need to suppress it for syllable-initial articulation, but not syllable-final articulation. Hence, the adult phonological system would emerge essentially as a residue of natural constraints on pronunciation. Speech disorders could occur when the neurological suppression of those constraints gets disrupted by brain damage.

  4. Bob Kennedy

    Rick, by “phonological knowledge” I meant knowledge of (a) the inventory of phonemes and (b) the mapping of these phonemes to their surface variants. It seems that the loss of suppression of constraints provided in your example fits as a “loss of knowledge” as I’ve dubbed it.

    This and the previous post have been partly a public exercise on my part in trying to determine whether certain types of FAS-aphasic behavior are indicative of an impact on this type of knowledge, or an impact strictly on motor control (leaving phonological knowledge intact). People who know a lot more about it than I do appear to interpret FAS as a motor control issue.

  5. Pattie

    I just googled Foregin Accent Syndrome because I watched Primetime last night, August 9, 2006. I believe I suffer from this very condition! I’ve been to countless doctors, and I still don’t have answers. Some doctors think I’m making this up. I’m asked on a daily basis “what country are you from.” For a person, who’s family fought for THE USA in WWII, Somlia and Iraq twice its very hard to hear those words. Family members also don’t believe me. I’ve become depressed over this deal. It all started when I was involved in a car accident on March 4, 2006. About two months later, I was in a MRI scan and my body started shaking. The next day it happened again. Both times I was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. The second time was very different in that I woke up from the pain to find my voice had changed. At first, I didn’t think anything was wrong because I was pretty much in bed for a month and didn’t interact with people except for family. It hit me when my five year old said to me “Mommy you know your voice is very funny now. People aren’t going to like you now because you speak funny.” I went and bought a new camcorder the next day so I could see myself speak. He was right!!! I did speak very funny. Then, I started to realize that it was not going away when people in public would ask “what country are you from.” I even had a doctor tell me to go back to the country were I live. People don’t realize the damage they are inflicking onto someone with comments like that. Some of my family members even think that I’m making this up. Boy are they very wrong. I wish I could speak normal again. I mean normal in the since that I used to speak in. My New York accent!!!!! I’m hoping that those doctors from Primetime will email me back. I want to make an appointment with one of them. I really want to get answers to these questions I ask myself everyday.

  6. Jill Dumin

    When I saw the primetime story about FAS I anxious to tell my friend who has experenced this syndrome. She had surgery as the result of tongue cancer and require speach therapy to relearn how to talk. As she progressed through therapy she began speaking with what seemed like a french accent. Although she is able to repeat others without having an accent, when she speaks on her own the accent is clear. She had never known that others have had this issue nor that this actually has a name.

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