Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Foreign Accent Syndrome

In my mind (pardon the pun) there's no subject more fascinating than neuroscience. Whenever I see articles about recent discoveries, I'm glued to the article. Especially interesting to me is how speech and language are manifested (for most people) in the left hemisphere. Having some knowledge of speech/language development and anatomy, I'm quite aware of the damage that occurs ---like Broca's Aphasia, apraxia of speech, and Wernicke's Aphasia-- in the adult brain due to TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).

One kind of brain damage effect I had not heard of before is called "Foreign Accent Syndrome." The article I read was about an English woman named Kay Russell who suffered a severe migraine, and subsequently developed a French accent. (see below)

Most people with the Foreign Accent Syndrome have no prior skill or experience with the foreign language they develop an accent for. In fact, English speakers can develop accents that sound Russian or Chinese, or a variation of English such as Australian or Jamaican. Some subjects will also have odd changes in reading or writing ability. For example, Kay Russell writes English prose as a native speaker of French would, with the grammar and syntax differences expected.

Subjects who are bilingual or trilingual will suffer very odd effects. For example, a bilingual Korean women lost her ability to speak Korean, but could read it. She could only speak English, which was her acquired language! I was especially intrigued to find she lost her native language ability! Years ago when I was working in a nursing home as a teenager, I remember an elderly woman who suddenly began speaking fluent Sicilian Italian after 45 years of not speaking Italian! She had lost her acquired English completely.

From a speech/language anatomy standpoint, people do not actually develop pure foreign accents, as a native speaker of a certain language would. Instead, damage to the brain causes changes in the speaker's intonation, stressing, patterns, and pitch. Vowels may be longer, or altered. As listeners try their best to understand what they are hearing, it is natural for them to assign a known accent. Some listeners, for example, think Kay Russell sounds Russian or Eastern European. In any case, Foreign Accent Syndrome, though it may seem alluring or sexy at first thought, is very distressing to people. Our voices, indeed, are very much a part of our identity and personality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A good article Thank you!