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Foreign Accent Syndrome

Imagine you wake up one day and suddenly start speaking in a completely foreign accent.

Is this possible, or is it a fictional and exaggerated account only shown in popular media?


The Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) is accurate and does exist beyond movies and television. FAS is a condition in which a person who speaks a native language may begin to sound like someone who speaks it as their second or third language. This essentially means the syndrome causes a person to articulate their primary language with a foreign accent. A report in 2019 suggested that FAS is not a persisting disorder and is temporary. The mean length of individuals having a foreign accent was 3 years. In this case, the person affected may have never visited or lived in the place where they picked up the accent from. However, their pronunciation remains consistent and is not something the individual is “faking” or has control over.


The phonetic system refers to one’s natural accent, which develops from sound patterns in your native language that one unconsciously learns while growing up. The primary symptom of FAS and what makes it perplexing is that it affects one’s entire pattern of their phonetic system, which usually remains fixed after teenage years. Some common symptoms include having trouble pronouncing specific clusters of sounds such as S-T-R, pronouncing vowels differently along with a shift in pitch or tone of sounds. Most patients affected by FAS also show symptoms of neurological or psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia, brain injury, dementia, or other disorders which damage the brain.


Psychologists study the causes behind Foreign Accent Syndrome and note the 2 primary reasons: neurological damage and mental health conditions. FAS is related to affect and damage on Broca’s brain area, which is linked with producing speech and fluency. Traumatic brain injuries, brain lesions or aneurysms, multiple sclerosis (MS) are specific examples of the reason behind FAS. Studies report that 49 patients with FAS had linked conditions to severe migraines, stroke, surgery, or seizures. Provided that injuries and other factors may change how the brain processes language and controls speech. The presence of mental health conditions such as depression, history of trauma, or psychotic disorders like schizophrenia is also a cause for the onset of FAS. Research suggests that conversion disorder refers to when a person experiences intense psychological pain that manifests as physical symptoms that may also cause FAS.


The first case of Foreign Accent Syndrome came to light in 1907. This sporadic condition has only 100 documented cases worldwide. A case reported in 2016 details a story of a 34-year-old African American woman with a history of paranoid schizophrenia (Asogwa et al., 2016). The patient showed extreme aggression and rage towards her landlady, showing no remorse while exclaiming statements such as “she is evil” and “I hate her”. The patient was taken to the psychiatric emergency room where she displayed an episode of FAS, as she suddenly broke into a British accent, despite never having lived in Britain. Psychiatrists studied her case and background of financial and emotional distress, linking schizophrenia as the cause for FAS (Asogwa et al., 2016). Another such case report in 2018 showed a Spanish-speaking woman began speaking in an English accent. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), which demyelinated her brain, disrupting the ability to send signals. Therefore, Foreign Accent Syndrome is a rare condition. However, it is reality.


Causes of Foreign Accent Syndrome are not all curable. However, specific medication can help manage the symptoms. Treatment for FAS primarily includes speech therapy. A specialist in communication and speech disorders makes the patient recreate their original accent through vocal exercises and deliberate pronunciation. Therapy, counselling, and support groups are essential for patients with FAS. They help the individual cope with identity, hallucinations, and confusion. Behavioural therapy strategies allow patients to cultivate healthy habits, positive outlook. It also combats destructive and negative emotions that one may face with a mental health condition. Treatment for FAS also includes targeting the underlying medical condition. Therefore, psychiatrists may prescribe antiseizure and anti-clotting medication to address neurological disorders.


The Foreign Accent Syndrome is not evasive or dangerous. However, it may warn medical, neurological conditions such as brain tumour, lesions, or dementia. Although it is rare, FAS has proved to be a legitimate neurological and psychological condition requiring greater attention and research. Knowledge is power. We must spread awareness, and psycho-educate individuals on rare diseases such as these. FAS goes beyond being the enigmatic plot twists in fictional movies or television. It is indeed grounded in reality.


Join us in the more significant movement to destigmatise mental health conditions. Together, let us raise awareness about rare psychological conditions such as the Foreign Accent Syndrome.


References:

  1. Asogwa, K., Nisenoff, C., & Okudo, J. (2016). Foreign Accent Syndrome, a Rare Presentation of Schizophrenia in a 34-Year-Old African American Female: A Case Report and Literature Review. Case Reports in Psychiatry, 2016, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/8073572

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