FYI: The idea of waking up from a coma and speaking with a foreign accent sounds like something from a science-fiction film. What causes this problem?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 July, 2006, 12:00am

FYI: The idea of waking up from a coma and speaking with a foreign accent sounds like something from a science-fiction film. What causes this problem?

Foreign accent syndrome is a rare medical condition linked to strokes and head injuries. It occurs when

part of the brain becomes damaged. Sufferers have altered vocal features, such as lengthened syllables, mispronounced sounds and alterations in the pitch of voice, which combine to produce what is perceived as a foreign accent. The way we speak is a major part of our personality and losing it is like losing our identity.

While some doctors believe the problem is psychiatric rather than physical in origin, new research has found patients with the syndrome have sustained damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, where language processing occurs. Scientists at Britain's Oxford University confirmed last year that patients could develop a 'foreign accent' without ever having been exposed to that supposed accent's homeland.

'Foreign accent syndrome' is somewhat of a misnomer because although pronunciation and vocal patterns alter enough for an accent to be perceived as having changed, it may be difficult

for listeners to hear any specific regionality in it. Also, the term does not refer to cases in which a patient's accent reverts to one they used to have.

About 20 cases have been documented scientifically, but experts suspect the syndrome is more widespread. Most cases involve native-English speakers who sound French, German, Spanish or like they come from a accent-heavy region of Britain.

The most recent known case occurred this month. The BBC reported on July 4 that a woman from northeast England had developed several foreign accents after waking up from a stroke.

Linda Walker, 60, was said to have woken in hospital to find her Newcastle accent had mutated into one that flitted between sounding Jamaican, Canadian and Slovakian.

In some cases, the condition leads to other complaints. Judi Roberts, from Florida, in the US, was diagnosed with foreign accent syndrome after suffering a stroke in late 1999. She underwent extensive speech and language therapy, but doctors could not help

her revert to her American accent. Roberts consequently started to avoid social contact and developed agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces.

The first case of foreign accent syndrome to be reported was in 1941 in Norway, when a young woman suffered shrapnel injury to her brain during an air raid. She suffered severe language problems from which she recovered. However, she was left with what sounded like a strong German accent and was ostracised as a result - Germany was an invader at the time.


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