An Arizona-born woman, Michelle Myers has experienced a very bizarre change in herself, without changing anything about her lifestyle. Having lived in America her whole life, her accent was the same as any other average Texas person. Strangely, one night she went to bed with an unbearable headache and woke up with a British accent the next morning.
Even more strange is the fact that such changes are recurrent, happening at seemingly unpredictable times. The lady has experienced similar changes before, as an Australian and an Irish accent have made an appearance, but persisted no longer than two weeks.
The most recent one – the British accent – has stuck with her for the past two years, and she has come to terms with accepting that it may be here to stay forever. She’s still unhappy with the way she sounds, however, especially because people tell her she sounds like Mary Poppins, which she thinks is offensive to her.
This loss of vocal identity comes as a result of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a disorder which occurs after the person has experienced a stroke, been in a coma, or had similar injuries in the parts of the brain responsible for language regulation.
A shift in the brain
This abnormality leaves people intertwining their native accents with foreign ones, typically stressing syllables and changing the rhythm of pronunciation. The direct pathway to how a stroke or brain damage could lead to altered speech is yet unclear, although scientists have made assumptions given the most common area of damage. The damaged point is most often located in the left hemisphere, especially in the regions associated with speech in the middle cerebral artery.
In the case of Myers, she experienced none of the aforementioned, so her case is even rarer. Her doctors had diagnosed her headache as a hemiplegic migraine, whose symptoms represent those similar to a stroke and trick the brain into thinking it is experiencing one.
When asked about the experience, she stressed how much she struggled in her interactions with people, and feared when another migraine may come up. She opened up about the stroke-like attacks, regarding them as very dangerous.
Foreign Accent Syndrome was given recognition in 1907, after the case of a French man who woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent, despite not being from the French/German region. Neurologist Pierre Marie had documented his condition, and therefore named it FAS.
Another case was presented by a Brown University linguist and researcher, who wrote about another woman from Virginia. She has fallen down the stairs, banged her head and subsequently disrupting brain activity, finally waking up with a Russian accent.
Her changes were mainly pertaining pronunciations of “th” exchanged for “d”, for example “dis” instead of “this”. FAS is not limited to culture or ethnicity, and quite the opposite, there are cases across the world despite its rarity.
A patient from Japan woke up sounding Korean after undergoing a stroke attack, a Louisiana woman ended up with a Cajun accent after suffering a brain injury etc. The National Institutes of Health have roughly 60 documented cases across the world, as according to a 2011 study.
FAS also happens in people with mental disorders
In addition to brain injury or related matters, FAS also occurs psychogenically. In these cases, the brain damage is unidentifiable but could have a psychiatric disorder, such as bipolar, schizophrenia, or conversion disorder.
While psychosis takes place in episodes, the change in accent may last just as long as the episode or persist even after. There is some variety in how the syndrome is manifested and presents itself, as in addition to changes in prosody, people with FAS may also be experiencing difficulties in sentence creation, or simply be stressing the wrong syllabuses.
This last presumption is elaborated by a professor of cognitive science, Lyndsey Nickles, who speaks about accents in terms of vowel pronunciation. She argued that movements and placement of the jaw, lips, and tongue when experiencing slight alterations, could make the vowels sound different.
The difference in these sounds does not necessarily mean the person acquires a new accent. People are just used to hearing accents, and make these new sounds fit into their psychological schemas.
Lastly, FAS is rather similar to the condition of aphasia. It is a disorder pertaining to communication difficulty as a result of brain damage or injury. This makes it even more difficult to identify and diagnose.