September 20th, 2010
03:55 PM ET

When brain damage makes you sound foreign

You may have dabbled with a foreign accent just for fun, or for a performance of some kind. But in very rare cases, a person's voice takes on a dramatically different sound without his or her permission, and the original accent may be totally lost.

The phenomenon is called Foreign Accent Syndrome, and it's gotten a lot of attention recently.

There are only believed to be about 60 people in the world with foreign accent syndrome. It happens when brain injuries such as stroke lead a patient's speech pattern to change.

One woman with the condition is Kay Russell from Bishops Cleeve, England. The BBC reported that in January, Kay Russell woke up with a French-sounding accent after a severe migraine.

She has mixed emotions when she sees a video of herself speaking with her old British accent; it reminds her of her old self.

"It's not my voice I miss. I would love to have my old voice back, but it goes way, way, way beyond my voice," she told the BBC. "It's the person I want to be."

Another British woman with the condition also seeks to recover her former self. Kath Lockett has been trying to get her original voice back for four years, the BBC reported. A brain disease called severe cerebral vasculitis had left her unable to speak; after treatment, her accent became eastern European.

"It makes you realize you don't know where you're from anymore because you feel like you've lost your identity," Lockett told the BBC.

CNN also reported on the phenomenon in April - check out this video.

soundoff (94 Responses)
  1. Julie K Frazier

    I too have Foreign Accent Syndrome and believe me it is nothing you would want to 'fake' as it is a very distressing condition. Imagine, if you will, not being able to communicate with your family or friends, being abused in public for being 'foreign' or even calling your own cell phone and not even recognizing the voice on the vmail. My FAS developed over 2.5 years ago after a series of severe Sporadic Hemiplegic Migraines that were occurring multiple times per day for a period of over two months. Just for info, Hemiplegic Migraines (either familial or the sporadic version) are similar to a stroke symptomatically. Due to the chemical messages being processed incorrectly and passing through the nerve channels in an erratic manner a person with Hemiplegic Migraines may have severe confusion, coordination difficulties, problems walking, slurred speech or even be unable to speak and paralysis of part of the body. For almost a year after my speech 'changed' I had to carry a pencil and paper with me as even my closest family members frequently could not understand what I was trying to say. After almost 5 months of speech therapy twice per week I finally was able to communicate without having to email across the room to the people that I love. Even now there are times when they still have trouble understanding what I have to say or have to ask me to repeat what I have said multiple times, especially during the period before and after a SHM.

    Speech and language are a very large part of ones personality and when it is changed or lost you do grieve. It is a traumatic situation that also includes suffering from the condition that brought about the change in the first place. Others like me who have faced FAS due to hemiplegic migraines or other recurring chronic condition relive the fear and distress that another shift in the speech patterns could occur at any time or worse that we may loos our ability to speak altogether. As way of adapting some of us have picked up on phrases and lingo of the country whose accent we most sound like to make it easier to 'fit in' to a society that lives on ignorance as opposed to being educated. Each and every one of us who have faced the challenges of living with FAS have people daily ask us where we are from and let's face it, no one really wants to admit that they have a brain injury or condition that makes it so they cannot even speak correctly.

    Over the course of the last year I have broken through many fears, mainly how people react to me in public. Instead of hiding behind what to me sounds like bad grammar and slurred speech, what others call an 'accent', I have started talking to everyone that asks about both Foreign Accent Syndrome and Sporadic Hemiplegic Migraines in an effort to begin the long road of educating both the general public and hopefully, eventually, the medical community so that others like myself do not have the fears and challenges that I have had. This is one of those conditions that a person will never be able to understand how difficult it is to live with unless they are forced to 'walk in my shoes', so to speak.

    November 23, 2010 at 19:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Ellen Spencer (Ellen5e)

    It IS real and not easy to live with. You don't think your speech is a big part of who you are as a person? What would happen if your best friend called you on the phone and you answered "hello?" only to have them say "Oh, I am sorry, I have the wrong number" and hang up on you?!

    Although there are many psychosematic conditions that cause problems in a persons body, for those people diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome, you can be sure that psychological factors are considered before diagnosis is made. As far as "faking" an accent. Not even the best actor can hold onto a dialect through such a long time without slipping up. Consistently sounding like someone else who is considered a "foreigner" definitely causes people to treat you differently. They think you are incapable or people you've known for years may think "you look just like . . ." while not realizing they are actually talking to us.

    How do we explain this strange phenomena? It's extremely difficult. It involves the brain and as an earlier comment spoke of, there is so much we don't yet understand about the brain. Many professional neurologists have not had a case of FAS because it is so rare and so they are not encouraged to conduct studies and seek further knowledge. That lack of research only feeds general ignorance as to what is happening in FAS patients lives. By making the childish comments of "it's fake," "there is no such thing," etc. unthinking people are not only advertising their ignorance, but shedding judgmental condemnation on a person they don't even know who is already suffering from the ordeal of going through a medical condition which profoundly affects their daily life.

    I can understand where a person may wish to sound differently for a bit by putting on a dialect for a play for example. However, if you were speaking in a foreign accent and unable to 'turn it off,' do you not see how hurtful that might be?

    I and a group of others are trying to bring more awareness to both the general public and the medical community about this Foreign Accent Syndrome. I welcome you to visit http://ellen5e.com to walk in my shoes as I blogged about my journey with this rare condition from onset until now. Just put FAS in the search box and you will find numerous postings, including some where my "real" voice (what we call our before FAS voices) is recorded and then listen to my "new" voice. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that there is something profound going on in the Brocha (speech area) of the brain.

    I welcome your comments, as I just want to get understanding to rule over ignorance, and compassion over silliness.

    November 24, 2010 at 17:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hannes

      Dear Ellen,
      I just listened to a podcast where you tell your story so vividly and I was fascinated. Never heard of this before. Thank you for sharing it in such an interesting way. If you are still searching for a possible cause of such a situation, may I recommend you read a book by L. Ron Hubbard, called DIANETICS: The Modern Science of Mental Health. I read it many moons ago and I found it highly interesting and when I listed to your story, I thought about this book and I thought that it may be interesting for you as well as it just may shed some light on how this could happen (and what could be done about it).
      Best, Hannes

      June 8, 2016 at 23:11 | Report abuse |
  3. eileen wenig

    Perhaps if we could develop a drug that changes the accent, it could be given to all foreigners in the US and then we would understand them when they try to speak English.

    November 27, 2010 at 01:56 | Report abuse | Reply
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    May 4, 2011 at 05:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Abbott

    I am pleased I came across your website on msn. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my wife ended up being just preparing to do some research about it. I am thrilled to see these fantastic details getting shared freely out there.

    February 5, 2012 at 09:10 | Report abuse | Reply
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  8. Shygirl

    I had a brain Tumor and after Surgery, I woke up with a foreign accent, No one knows about it but my family, How do i report it, or have a study done on my accent, I hate going out in publc I am always asked Where are you from?
    I would like to know who will do a study on my accent, and how do I report it.

    February 26, 2013 at 21:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ellen5e

      Dear Shygirl... did you ever get connected with someone about your foreign accent syndrome? Are you still having it. Happy to connect with you as I have had it since 2009 and know of others for support. Stay strong!

      June 13, 2015 at 23:59 | Report abuse |
  9. ellen5e

    You can also go to website Ellen5e(dott)com and I have written blogs, shared audio and video links to ==, articles, and more. It was not strictly Foreign Accent Syndrome related blog so just use the search box to find information and/or the similar posts links at the end of a blog post. There is also a way to contact me on there.

    June 14, 2015 at 00:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Carl

    So only people can the FAS if they get a head injury? What about those that are born with it? All my life being cursed with this irish-american accent despite I'm a 7th born generation aussie! I'm sick and tired of asking me where you from, this happen whenever I start a conversation now I rarely socialize with anyone at all because they think I don't sound aussie enough.

    November 17, 2015 at 18:28 | Report abuse | Reply
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