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 (328 Responses)
  1. thor

    I forgot my mother tongue. But my memories were translated to English.

    September 20, 2010 at 16:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • peanuts

      this PROVES you gotta be brain damaged to be french

      September 21, 2010 at 00:09 | Report abuse |
  2. eileen wenig

    This is ridiculous. These people with this "syndrome" are faking.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • singularity5

      wow.. how do you fake a stroke which can be imaged by MRI?

      September 20, 2010 at 17:31 | Report abuse |
    • IMHO

      I'd like to see evidence of your credentials, doctor, before i take your word for it that they are faking.

      September 20, 2010 at 17:35 | Report abuse |
    • Liza Null

      YOU are the "ridiculous" one. I seriously doubt you even know what you are talking about

      September 20, 2010 at 17:37 | Report abuse |
    • Bugler

      Okay, you win the daily award for most Moronic post. Congrats. Keep it up and one day, the Hall of Fame will be yours.

      September 20, 2010 at 18:28 | Report abuse |
    • JD

      A woman I met several years ago in New York City had suffered a brain injury when she was thrown off a horse. This happened when she was in her teens and subsequently she spoke with what sounded like a British accent. I noticed, however, that if you listened to her carefully over a longer period of time, some of her speech patterns did not really sound "foreign" so much as slurred or mispronounced, which would tend to support the contention that this was genuinely the result of a brain injury rather than a put-on.

      September 20, 2010 at 19:40 | Report abuse |
    • Obelisk

      Foot in Mouth Disease also known as Eileen Syndrome: when one fakes having knowledge of anything of the world around them and will go as far as to speak foolishly when having no basic evidence or credentials to back up a single word they type or utter.

      Now THAT would be a fake syndrome. Yet you still appear to suffer from it. What is being spoken about in the article is NOT a fake syndrome. I know more than one person who has had massive changes to speech and their patterns of day to day life after having a stroke. From simply educating myself after my friends had suffered from similar issues I discovered many things I never knew could happen to a stroke victim. It is no joke or hoax, and may manifest itself in many ways dependant upon varying factors, such as how bad the damage sustained was. If you point the finger so readily without even doing a little bit of research or having a seconds worth of forethought, then the only thing that may be fake here is you.

      September 20, 2010 at 20:41 | Report abuse |
    • Shar Chenette

      Eileen. I hate to tell you but I am not faking. I have had this syndrome and been documented by the Univ. of Central Florida by a Dr. Jack Ryalls. It hurts when people like YOU say things you know nothing about. It is hard on my husband, grown children and all family and friends. Wish you could live a day in my shoes. Get educated BEFORE you say hurtful things. Shar

      September 21, 2010 at 00:04 | Report abuse |
    • Nyles Cota

      hahahahaha some people. just gotta laugh at your stupidity

      September 21, 2010 at 01:27 | Report abuse |
  3. D

    Re: Wenig
    Faking it? Why would they? The self is stored in the brain, any part of a behaviour can be changed via changes to the brain.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. K

    Aw, it's all in their head!

    September 20, 2010 at 17:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. natalie

    No, it's called the "I want some attention" disease.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • IMHO

      You sound like such a lovely human being. I'll bet you'd say the same thing about someone afflicted with Tourette Syndrome.

      September 20, 2010 at 17:38 | Report abuse |
    • Tukker

      Lemme guess Natalie, you're blonde?

      September 20, 2010 at 17:59 | Report abuse |
    • Obelisk

      I suppose we'll all have to remember you said that if you ever need help.
      We shouldn't be surprised though. The uneducated tend to call bull on anything they don't understand.
      Of course they still never bother to learn anything before they flap their gaping wind tunnel mouths either.

      September 20, 2010 at 20:50 | Report abuse |
    • Obelisk

      I suppose we'll all have to remember you said that if you ever need help.
      We shouldn't be surprised though. The uneducated tend to call bull on anything they don't understand.
      Of course they still never bother to learn anything before they flap their gaping wind tunnel mouths either.

      September 20, 2010 at 20:50 | Report abuse |
    • pro-lifer

      @natalie hurr durr herp derp nice try troll

      September 20, 2010 at 21:44 | Report abuse |
  6. Dolthara

    It would have been interesting if this article had gotten into the language center of the brain & what causes us to have accents in the first place. Each language has it's own set of sounds and the brain is a giant sound board. We are born with the switches to all these sounds set to neutral, and they each lock into place as we learn the language we are born into. We have accents when we try to learn a foreign language because our brains are still locked into the soundsets of our native languages. It makes sense that a specific type of injury to the wrong part of the brain could bump those switches around.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pirogi

      Hey! If you don't have something mean or snarky to say, you shouldn't say anything at all!

      September 20, 2010 at 18:08 | Report abuse |
  7. The_Mick

    My friend had a stroke. His accent didn't change but he started agreeing with the Tea Party.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • IMHO

      I'd suggest he be put discretely on suicide watch.

      September 20, 2010 at 17:38 | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      Mick, that made me laugh so hard I startled a friend in another room.

      September 20, 2010 at 17:42 | Report abuse |
    • lacrosseson

      I see. Now that blood is flowing to his brain, he's no longer an idiot.

      September 20, 2010 at 17:58 | Report abuse |
    • Michelle

      A sure sign of brain damage. I'm sorry for your friend's loss of higher brain function.

      September 20, 2010 at 18:09 | Report abuse |
  8. MWhit

    The_Mick = best.comment.ever.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Snowboarder

    Ahhh, got it. So your friend is delusional.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Someone

    @ The_Mick:
    Really? Your poor... poor friend...

    September 20, 2010 at 17:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. docliptz

    I am Doctor Timothy Liptsvitch and I say in medical opinion from University of Phoenix Online that these people need good dose of demerol and shock therapies to make lives whole again. I will perhaps blog about this.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Paul

    I can maybe understand the accent, but does it make you use slang as well? that Amercian women with the British accent used both 'bloody', and 'fliiped your wig', which aren't exactly common American expressions. Seemed like she was trying to hard.

    the mysteries of the brain continue.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • tapu

      Having come across this as a grad student in linguistics, I certainly think the phenom is real. However, you make a very interesting point. I wonder what kind of explanation for that would be offered by her doctors, and perhaps by linguists.

      September 20, 2010 at 18:09 | Report abuse |
  13. Pat

    I actually had a similar thing happen to me, once. I had a grand mal seizure in my home and the paramedics were called. As I became more aware after the seizure (I had blankets taped around the bars so I wouldn't hurt myself, etc.) my husband told me that I had been switching from an America accent to an English one. However, I did grow up with my father and grandmother, who both grew up in England, and lived there for years ago, but under normal circumstances I sounded American, as I've lived here nearly all my life and my mother is American. It was very strange. (And evidently I said some pretty naughty things in that dialect, as well...I hope that doctor and nurse got together after I REALLY broke the ice for them...)

    September 20, 2010 at 17:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Charlotte

    ....so a French accent is a sign of brain damage? Hmmm. One could make all sorts of snarky jokes about the French but I will refrain. I will say that in my years as a classical singer, having to have good pronunciation in several languages, French was always the most difficult for me. Does that mean that I have no brain damage? All in all I suppose the syndrome is possible but I wonder if it's more of a neuromuscular problem – like the many Brits I've encountered who cannot say "r" (Wed Wabbit syndrome). In British English it is less of an impediment than in American English because they say fewer of their "r's" even when speaking normally. And even with these, I wonder if a speech therapist could have helped, but nobody bothered because they don't need it as much as an American kid.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Michelle

      Only if you're NOT actually French, genius.

      September 20, 2010 at 18:11 | Report abuse |
    • MrsFizzy

      I think we need fair coverage...what kind of accent do French people develop when brain-damaged? And I think the "w" thing in England may be more often left to correct itself than occuring more often, while in America kids have to be made perfect so it has to be trained out of them.

      September 20, 2010 at 19:04 | Report abuse |
  15. Chitown Jason

    Perhaps these people should realize that their voice has nothing to do with who they are.

    Personally I wouldn't mind an accent change, if I can pick it out ahead of time.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Liz

    Seems I've seen a similar story on a TV program/documentary/magazine type show. It's hard to believe but my nephew was in a car accident and sustained profound brain injuries which makes him unable to speak. Only single words, or sounds, and that's with much difficulty. So even though he hears perfectly, and understands what you say to him, his brain won't let him speak. So I guess the brain could also change your manner of speaking if it gets injured in some way, or sustains some medical trauma/sickness/etc. What we DON'T know about the brain is a lot.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Andrew

    They way I understand this is that if you brain damage an English women you get a French women? This makes perfect sense to me.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. ~mary~

    Perhaps this explains Madonna's sort of british accent she acquired????

    September 20, 2010 at 17:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chupacabra

      Sometimes, when I get a little tipsy, my accent comes out sounding South African. Not quite Australian, not quite British, but every ounce strange. It comes out without me trying. Perhaps drinking is a form of short term brain damage! 😉

      September 20, 2010 at 20:44 | Report abuse |
  19. BOS

    This explains what happened to Madonna.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. BOS

    Ha Mary...at the very same time!

    September 20, 2010 at 17:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Catherine

    I want a sexy Irish accent!

    September 20, 2010 at 17:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. TC

    I have a theory that our mother's and their mother's and so forth, memories are downloaded into our subconscious mind while we're being gestated. It could be that if damage occurs to our "lifetime" memory the brain reroutes through the the next level of brain tissue which could be programmed with another "accent" .Example a man speaks English but his grandmother was French, he has a stroke and comes back speaking with the French accent, because that part of his brain isn't damaged.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pad

      Similar to the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert's Dune – read it if you have not done so already, it's one of the best SF books out there!

      September 20, 2010 at 19:10 | Report abuse |
  23. Katya

    The British speak English. The Anglo-American speak a strange dialect. The absolute majority of native English speakers in the world would not recognize your speech as correct English.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MrsFizzy

      Let me guess...we're all brain-damaged? How original... And I can tell you the cast of Jersey Shore have nothing on some of the Brits who speak "the Queen's English" as far as mangling the English language goes!

      September 20, 2010 at 18:59 | Report abuse |
    • Jen R

      Katya, American English is as legitimate of a form of English as any of the UK's many regional dialects. Personally I find many Americans easier to understand than people from some regions of the UK, and I say this as a British Citizen born and raised in England. I also think that you should consider the roots of English, which comes from many different languages. I think that the way to respect English as a language is to allow it to evolve as it has always has done.

      September 24, 2010 at 22:42 | Report abuse |
  24. Grondahl

    A friend of mine, born and raised in the Midwest, sounds like she was plucked from the gaudiest, orangest section of the east coast. She had a speech impediment as a child, so this was more of a way for her to circumvent it than it was a case of her being normal and then turning into a Joy-sey Sho-sounding diva.

    But it follows that if she had a stroke, she would sound like she was from Jersey.

    September 20, 2010 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Pat

    If you listen to children, though, that have lived for a time in England and then moved to America, they do have a sort of half-English accent. I will admit to having times where I have no idea what some Scots are saying.

    September 20, 2010 at 18:01 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MrsFizzy

      That's likely to happen at some point to anyone who moves countries ......their accent begins to change. This supposedly happens overnight!

      September 20, 2010 at 18:57 | Report abuse |
  26. SDCyclist

    I saw a television program about these people a while back. The first thing I thought when I heard them speak was that it wasn't an accent. It just sounded like a speech impediment. The stroke had effected the muscles and nerves of their face, mouth, tongue, throat, etc., so what seemed to be an accent was really just a defect of the motor skills that allowed speech. Anyway... that was just my first impression. I'm not a speech therapist or educated in this subject in any way.

    September 20, 2010 at 18:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Adam

    In related news, 61 people worldwide reported a strange burning sensation between their first and second toes every time Glenn Beck compares Obama to Stalin.

    September 20, 2010 at 18:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • tapu

      Are you interested only in the masses? Unusual phenomena can, at the very least, bring insight into other (and for you: more widespread) circumstances.

      September 20, 2010 at 18:15 | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      @tapu – Actually, yes. I'm all for unusual phenomenons...I would just be a little more interested in something which has a little more substance, and affects more than 3 people (on average) in our country. Then again, I posted, twice, so CNN must be doing something right.

      September 20, 2010 at 18:33 | Report abuse |
  28. leo

    So is it Kay Russell on the picture?

    September 20, 2010 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Maria

    Who cares if your accent changes? It's still you inside, right? So why complain. Be happy you survived whatever brain trauma caused your accent to change. Instead of being grateful they are alive, they are bitching because they want their old accent back. Some people have REAL problems.

    September 20, 2010 at 18:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. fireybuddha

    read "still here" by ram dass. it's about alzheimer's and takes the buddhist theory of non-attachment to the step beyond physical matter, to the identify of "self," and how that identity is elusive and perpetually changing. what is self, and why are we so attached to it?

    September 20, 2010 at 18:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Help

    Hey guys, will you visit SaveStan.ORG a friend of mine with 4 young babies is fighting for his life…… Thanks

    September 20, 2010 at 19:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. DirtyBob

    I'd be mad if I woke up with a French accent too.

    September 20, 2010 at 19:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Shelly Man

    It appears that a brain injury causes people to talk in a foreign accent, so I guess you could say that all foreigners have brain damage.

    September 20, 2010 at 19:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Loggie

    Maybe this is what Madonna got when she moved from Detroit to London???

    September 20, 2010 at 20:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Loggie

    Or is that Obama speaking like an American when he's from ...whatever...

    September 20, 2010 at 20:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Sunnye

    I think that this is very possible. I received a traumatic brain injury several years back and lost my speech and language abilities. I have since recovered somewhat, but not completely. When my tongue does not successfully hit its target, m

    September 20, 2010 at 20:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sunnye

      oops...continued. When the target is not reached, my speech might sound slurred or simply interpreted as a foreign accent. This has happened a few times in the past. When the individual asked if I was from another country, it put me in a peculiar situation. I didn't want to lie, but I didn't want to explain that I had a speech deficit, either.

      September 20, 2010 at 20:41 | Report abuse |
  37. Marc

    This was a story on NPR like 4 months ago.

    September 20, 2010 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. No

    it's therapeutic, besides who cares if someone sounds different. If the opinion comes out of a smokers thought process even more reason to pay it no notice.

    September 21, 2010 at 02:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Ted

    "The latter postdates genetic memory in the evolution of the human species, only coming into being with the development of language, and thus the possibility of the transmission of experience.[3] Racial memory is a concept in Jungian psychology. Racial memories are posited memories, feelings and ideas inherited from our ancestors as part of a "collective unconscious"."

    September 21, 2010 at 03:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Ellen5e

    for those who don't think it's real I invite you to live some snippets out of my life. I live in Indiana and got Foreign Accent Syndrome after a wicked headache and numbness to half of my face, now I sound French/Dutch/German depending on which words I am using. However my singing remains normal !! I want people to understand the truth – Hear it for yourself. http://ellen5e.com.

    September 21, 2010 at 03:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Billshut

    So if a Star Wars geek has a stroke, might they come out of it being able to speak Klingon? Meaning, of course, that they couldn't already do so??

    September 21, 2010 at 08:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fanny

      A Star Wars geek with a Foreing Accent Syndrome wouldn't speak Klingon, no... Since well, Klingon is from Star Trek.

      October 11, 2010 at 19:50 | Report abuse |
  42. Bill W

    Suddenly speaking in a foreign accent is like someone saying they have multiple personalities, or a dead person is speaking through them, or someone experiencing stigmata, or someone saying they can feel spirits in a room or someone saying they saw a space ship, big foot, or some other mythical creature etc. These are all easy to fake and there are no tests that can be done to prove otherwise. People do all kinds of things to get attention, to make money or because they have psychological problems.

    However, after a stroke people do have personality changes. There is a book titled, The Man who Mistook His wife for a Hat written by neurologist Oliver Sachs. In the book he describes some extreme cases.

    Someone says they suddenly started talking with a foreign accent and they expect everyone to believe them. Why would you believe them, because they want you to?

    September 21, 2010 at 08:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. wanda J

    I think it might be so mysterious in that she could be part french way back in her ancestors and it comes thru that way. who kows.

    September 21, 2010 at 12:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. shar

    No, it has nothing to do with your ancestory. It has to do with the way your BRAIN now says you can FORM your constanants and vowels. Nothing more, nothing less. Why don't you folks educate yourselves JUST A LITTLE BIT and GOOGLE, Foreign Accent Syndrome for yourselves? Or is ignorance BLISS? Cause you sure are showing your ignorance !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    September 21, 2010 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sunnye

      You're right. It is merely damage to the brain that causes the syndrome. It is linked to aphasia and apraxia. I have both of these disorders due to my traumatic brain injury, but they are seen more often in stroke victims. Having a TBI for 20 years now and having knowledge in this area, I have no doubt that these people are telling the truth.

      September 23, 2010 at 21:23 | Report abuse |
  45. FoolKiller

    I'm going to go out on a limb here, and think that I would just be happy I could still speak.

    September 21, 2010 at 13:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Anonyomous

    People with this syndrome should be shot. Like Jews.

    Herp derp, I'm jewish!

    September 21, 2010 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Maggie Sue

    Well, I believe that, even when they mention a Syndrome here, some ppl who r lucky enough to still talk after a brainstroke could have some permanent changes in the way they speech, thats all. Then, everybody just compare this unusual way to talk or pronounce words to the first language they heard before. Is not a big deal. Actually, after a brainstroke, the fact that the patient can talk should b a reason to celebrate. I dont think anybody would like a loveone with no voice @ all after a brainstroke, over a "foreing accent".

    September 22, 2010 at 00:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Nancy Haller

    I have experienced Foreign Accent Syndrome since a surgery in 2000. My accent has traveled from many regions in Europe, to the tonal qualities of Asia, to the monotone of a deaf person learning to speak and traveled from the NE to the Southern regions of the United States. With the assistance of the Feldenkrais Method and personal rehabilitation, I have been able to rehabilitate from 52% intelligible to about 80% unless I am tired. It has been an interesting journey of research and recovery. Most people only hear the accent and do not understand the total picture of the brain injury involved. If I were to stand in the UN and speak, there would not be a single country that would acknowledge my accent as their language. Many of the people with this diagnosis do not have the skills to rehabilitate or understand where to find assistance for themselves. I have been fortunate to have my training and education to work through the process of creating neuroplasticity in the brain.

    September 30, 2010 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. William E Forester

    I had a stroke, August 2009. I was a college lector. My stroke left me voiceless for four months, lots of therapy and grammarless. I need help for walking and my arm is always hanging.
    Now, I did a half marathon one month ago. My arm is a work in progress! But I pitched a ball.
    My voice it coming back. It a long and hard process! I live in Bay Village, Ohio. I was surprised my speech was English (England). Now I’m American English some word its English (England) my dogs (basset hounds) Molly and Watson really sound English. Excuse my grammar!

    October 12, 2010 at 12:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. William E Forester

    I had a stroke, August 2009. I was a college lector. My stroke left me voiceless for four months, lots of therapy and grammarless. I need help for walking and my arm is always hanging.
    Now, I did a half marathon one month ago. My arm is a work in progress! But I pitched a ball.
    My voice it coming back. It a long and hard process! I live in Bay Village, Ohio. I was surprised my speech was English (England). Now I’m American English some word its English (England) my dogs (basset hounds) Molly and Watson really sound English. Excuse my grammar! teacherspeaker@gmail.com

    October 12, 2010 at 12:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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