Foreign Accent Syndrome: When Your Voice Isn’t Your Own
by Debbie Waldman
For many people, having a foreign or regional accent is an important part of their identity. But what if that accent wasn’t your own? This is the case for people who have been diagnosed with foreign accent syndrome (FAS).
People with foreign accent syndrome experience a sudden change in their speech which others perceive as sounding like a foreign accent. FAS is an extremely rare disorder with only 100 cases having been reported worldwide, however the range of accent changes reported has been fairly broad, including changes from Japanese to Korean, British English to French, American-English to British English, and Spanish to Hungarian. Although the person’s speech has changed drastically, speech remains intelligible and may not necessarily sound disordered. Changes in speech can include:
- Changes in tone
- Unusual prosody
- Distorted sentence construction
- Voicing errors
- Use of uncommonly used words
- Consonant/vowel distortions, substitutions etc.
- Changes in one’s tongue and jaw placement during speech
Although this condition may seem mysterious, it is actually just a variation on a much more common problem: speech changes following neurological damage. When a person has a stroke or other brain injury, their speech and language are often affected. Usually this involves distortions that make speech less intelligible, but the types of sounds that are impacted are unpredictable and vary from person to person. Foreign accent syndrome occurs when a person’s speech sounds are impacted in a very specific way that just happens to mimic the accent of a specific non-native speaking group.
In diagnosing foreign accent syndrome a complete medical history is necessary to help formulate a proper diagnosis. In many cases, a psychological evaluation is done to rule out any psychiatric conditions. A diagnosis of FAS can be reached after assessing various things, such as language skills and brain activity. Imaging tests, such as MRI and CT scan, are also used to assist in diagnosing this rare condition.
As far as treatment goes, an speech-language pathologist can provide therapy to help the patient regain his/her former manner of speaking. This may include learning how to better move one’s lips and jaw during speech. Counseling can also be beneficial for a person diagnosed with FAS. It is meant to provide emotional support and strategies for coping with the condition.
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