Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS)

First reaction

When I first heard of this malady a couple of days ago, I must admit, it appealed to my macabre sense of humor, especially when Wikipedia[1] described Americans afflicted with strokes  speaking with English accents after recovery, a Norwegian shrapnel victim in 1941 suddenly speaking with a German accent, and so on. It was just like something from Woody Allen’s movie Zelig. The headlines referenced in the Wikipedia article reinforced how weird this phenomenon is: “Woman’s migraine gave her French accent“. The Guardian (London) Steven Morris, (2010-09-14)[2]; “Severe Migraine Leaves English Woman with Chinese Accent”  Fox News. 19 April 2010. Retrieved 20 April 2010 [3]; “Woman Gets Oral Surgery, Wakes Up with Irish Accent” 2011-06-05. Retrieved 2011-06-16. [4]

Medical reasons

Many of the cases mentioned in Wikipedia noted that stroke was frequently a precursor to FAS. Damage to the speech centers[5], involvement of the cerebellum[6] (a part of the brain involved with motor activities) are thought to be responsible for FAS. Perhaps motor impairment does not allow musculature involved in speech to enunciate certain sounds. If, for example, a person was unable to pronounce an “R” for some reason, one might think that he or she was from Boston. In fact, the ‘accent’ that a person develops depends on large part, who is listening: while some may note a Slovakian accent for example, others may hear a Russian accent.

Some researchers think that brain damage is not involved with this syndrome. Peter Mariën, a neurolinguist studying FAS stated, “There is no such thing as one simple recipe that explains what happens to a person who has foreign accent syndrome,”[7]

To be taken seriously

In another case, reported by ABC news, a 16 year old girl who developed an accent after seizures following a Lyme disease infection[8].

What struck me about this article was not the strangeness of the phenomenon, but rather the humane and understanding response by her doctor: “Dr. Lynn Durand, says that while he can’t explain [the girl’s foreign accent], he doesn’t doubt it either. ‘Lyme can have some very strange symptoms,’ he said. ‘And I think what’s so important about Lyme disease is that patients will present with strange symptoms and, we, the medical community, will not know what to make of it, and unfortunately we think, ‘If the diagnosis isn’t in my head, it must be in the patient’s head, so they must be making this up.’ My feeling is that it’s very, very important to take the patients at their word and hear what they have and really try to explore what the causes are.’ ” [9]

Bravo, Dr. Durand.


[6] Mariën P., Verhoeven J. (2007). Cerebellar involvement in motor speech planning: some further evidence from foreign accent syndrome. Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, 59:4, 210-217.

[9] Ibid

11 thoughts on “Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS)

  1. I’m not sure if this is relevant, but with Lyme disease, can it cause tics ? Because I once watched a programme where children in a high school in America were ‘catching tourettes syndrome’ and one of the girls shown had Lyme disease I think. So can it cause foreign accent syndrome too? I might look into it a bit more, it seems very interesting. I can’t find the video link to the girl but this article kind of has it in a nutshell 🙂

  2. I know what my personal interpretation of this ‘odd’ syndrome would be. In fact to me it really doesn’t sound very odd at all. There is always a good explanation for these ‘shifts’ in conscious focus, whether explicable by science or not. Of course science is just one stream of thought and opinion, not the prevailing rule. ‘Foreign Accent Syndrome’ sounds fascinating and I too share you macabre humour I’m afraid to say. I think however the important thing to stress here, as you have is the humanity of the person’s circumstances. People are not machines that can be medically tinkered with, nor is a technical diagnosis necessarily helpful. The only person who will ever understand their condition fully is the person with the condition themselves. The mind is indeed weird in its wonderfulness, its complexity and sheer magnitude for being misunderstood.

    • Full disclosure. I am basically a biological determinist. Science does a pretty good job of explaining a lot of things; I wouldn’t characterize it as a stream of thought, but rather as a method – the scientific method, where hypotheses are formulated then tested.
      In the particular case of Foreign Accent Syndrome, it is not clear that it is a matter of consciousness. In fact it probably has more to do with the way that sounds are formed. As I mentioned in the post, if someone has lost the ability to pronounce the letter ‘R’, he or she may sound like they are from Boston, Massachusetts. If this happens suddenly, there might be a physiological explanation behind it.
      People can be medically tinkered with: physicians do it all the time, to help people overcome rogue bacteria that threaten our lives, to improve our chances of living longer with a repaired heart or a new kidney; individuals may medically tinker with themselves to improve their mood with alcohol or other recreational substances available.
      I agree, though: The brain is enormously complex. With 100B neurons and thousands of connections on each one, the possibilities are unimaginable. Some say that the phenomenon of consciousness is an emergent quality of the complexity itself.
      However, what I think you are saying is that science is not the way to understand the human condition. I agree with that. I think the creative and performing arts are far more effective at exploring this realm. Science can expand the field of wonders that we can contemplate.

      • We all reach our own conclusions I guess. Medical determinism does not necessarily fit with my model of reality, although I respect that it may be yours. It’s a choice we all have in exercising free will, and both views are equally valid. Science hasn’t even begun to understand how the human mind works, how consciousness works, so it can only grasp at straws and make sketchy hypotheses until it grasps that the body is not just a machine separate from conscious will. However, I’m not interested in inciting argument here, just merely expressing my views as you have. It’s an interesting discussion, and I shall continue to enjoy your posts. Regards, Maria

        • Oops, hit reply too soon. What I meant to say was that I hope that the tone of my response was not inappropriate. I respect your position as well; I even think we’re not terribly far apart in our thinking. Although much is determined by physical and biological factors (IMHO) there is much that is unknown and perhaps unknowable.

          Thanks, Maria, for your all your comments. I hope I didn’t put you off too much.



          • No not at all, I just get a little twitchy with this kind of debate is all. I’ve spent a big part of my life unlearning the limitations of the society that I have grown up in. Also having been through the rigours of the medical system for many years as doctors have tried to figure out what was wrong with me, I’ve come to realise that they are pretty clueless here in the UK, where even their best guesses have been pretty feeble. They were of the mind that the genetic condition I was eventually diagnosed with was so rare that it was extremely unlikely that it would be the cause of all my maladies. How wrong they were. So, as you can understand I have looked for alternative ways to deal with my life on my own terms, and actually that works pretty well for me.
            Healthy debate and an exchange of ideas is good, and I enjoy it. I hope you’ll keep visiting.

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