The Washington Post recently reported that A Texan went to the hospital for surgery. She woke up with a startling British accent.
In December 2015, 33-year-old Texan Lisa Alamia underwent surgery on her jaw to correct an overbite. The surgery was a success, except for the fact that when she awoke she spoke with a British accent. Her doctor told her that it was a psychological response to the surgery, but months later when her accent didn’t go away, she saw a neurologist who diagnosed her with Foreign Accent Syndrome.
Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) is a rare condition that is better described as a type of language disorder known as aphasia. There are only about 100 documented cases of FAS in the world and very little is known about it. It is an impairment in language ability resulting from damage to portions of the brain responsible for language. This typically occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain, affecting the primary motor cortex and either its cortico-cortical connections or its cortico-subcortical projections. Each case is unique although it has most often been reported in people who have suffered a stroke, although several cases have been reported following a brain tumor, dementia, migraines, multiple sclerosis or an infection.
Foreign Accent Syndrome is characterized by changes in the person’s speech that make them sound like they have acquired a “foreign” accent. There have been “accent changes” from Japanese to Korean, British English to French, American English to British English, Scottish English to South African English, and Spanish to Hungarian.
Generally, changes take place in the speaker’s pronunciation, pitch, pause, emphasis, and intonation. This is known as dysprosody. Speakers are unable to make certain sounds or sound combinations, and may delete, substitute, or add alternative sounds to compensate for this deficit.
Foreign Accent Syndrome is really a misnomer because people with this condition haven’t acquired a genuine foreign accent. A person with FAS has lost the ability to produce certain sounds. Instead, they pronounce different sounds that are characteristic of other accents, but this doesn’t mean they have developed a new national accent, such as a German accent, or regional accent, such as a Texan accent. They have lost features distinctive to their personal accents which have been replaced with ones that only make them sound like they are speaking in another accent. This is an accidental accent.
A similar phenomenon is when a person appears to suddenly speak another language. We saw a case of this in 2014 when an Australian man awoke from a coma apparently speaking fluent Mandarin. This is often called xenoglossia and is believed by many to be a paranormal phenomenon. However, it is a real condition known as bilingual aphasia where the speaker suffers a brain trauma of some kind and cannot access their native language but instead can only speak a second language they know. There hasn’t been a true “paranormal” case where a person has had a bump on the head and woken up speaking another language to which they’ve never had exposure.
There is no cure for these conditions. The effects can be temporary and treated with speech therapy, or they may be permanent.
For more information about Foreign Accent Syndrome, xenoglossia and bilingual aphasia you can check out my book Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic.
We still have a lot more to learn about these conditions, but we can safely say that they are typically physiological, rarely psychological but not paranormal. These people are not “faking it”, and they aren’t speaking with an accent they had in a past life.
These are more great examples of fact being stranger than fiction.