June 28, 2013
The Accent Change Exasperation
CNN recently reported about a very interesting neurological event called foreign accent syndrome, which “is an extremely rare condition in which brain injuries change a person’s speech patterns, giving them a different accent.” Apparently, the first known case happened in 1941 when a Norwegian woman who was the victim of German bombing came out of her injuries no longer speaking with a Norwegian accent but with a German one. Since then, others have suffered from the exasperation of an accent change.
As the article states, “‘It’s [foreign accent syndrome] an impairment of motor control,’ said Dr. Karen Croot, one of the few experts in foreign accent syndrome. ‘Speech is one of the most complicated things we do, and there are a lot of brain centers involved in coordinating a lot of moving parts. If one or more of them are damaged, that can affect the timing, melody and tension of their speech.'” For some people, head injury and brain damage can lead to a change in accent, which can be psychologically frustrating.
For many people, their accent is a reflection of their personality. To wake up from pain and injury sounding different can be even more traumatizing.
In the CNN article, a handful of other cases were discussed. One case was about one woman’s negative experience with foreign accent syndrome. An Australian woman, Leanne Rowe, who was a bus driver and Army Reserve member, was in a severe car accident from which she suffered a broken back and jaw. As she recovered, she found that she no longer spoke with the Australian accent she had prior to the accident but with a French accent. She sounded different to her own ears, and she did not like it.
For Rowe, this development was embarrassing and frustrating. It has been eight years since her accident, and still today she speaks with a French accent. She continues to feel frustration about her situation. In her words, “‘I am not French,’ Rowe told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Sunday. ‘It makes me so angry because I am Australian.'” For a long time, she became reclusive because she did not want to speak. If she was in public, her daughter talked for her so that Rowe did not have to sound different. Now, she has started to talk more, but the foreign accent syndrome still impacts her life
Another patient with foreign accent syndrome went from sounding British to Chinese. After a severe migraine, her accent changed. For her, her new voice was not her own and annoyed her.
Not all have such a negative experience. The CNN article identified an English woman who started sounding Irish. For this woman, she felt like she had the opportunity for a new persona thus the new accent was a positive experience.
Not all sufferers have such permanence with their newly acquired accents. Unlike in Rowe’s case, most patients regain their original accents, some rather quickly and others over time. For some patients, their brains fix themselves. Other patients perform exercises that reteach them how to reposition their mouths. They do exercises and activities for other motor skills as well. Furthermore, “Treatments used for similar motor speech disorders, apraxia of speech and dysarthria, have also been deployed for patients of foreign accent syndrome in the last few years with ‘positive’ results.”
Our brains are so complicated. It amazes me how something like a migraine can change the way we sound. Our accents reflect our upbringing, where we grew up and what our culture is. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to suddenly speak with a different accent.
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