Reported in such classy news sources as The Mirror and The Daily Mail this week, the case of an Australian woman who woke up speaking English with a French accent following a car accident. These cases being rare, you generally only get to hear about a new one every couple of years. In fact, there have only been little over 60 cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) ever reported since its discovery in 1941.
To be sure, the news reports are often a bit misleading, and to the average person used to hearing English spoken with a French accent, the Australian case is only a vague approximation. The result of brain injury or stroke affecting an area devoted to language, FAS is in effect a speech impediment, and the people who wake up sounding French, Jamaican or Chinese have pretty much never had any experience of these cultures or languages.
We know relatively little about the functioning of the brain in terms of language production, and it is still appears to be somewhat of a miracle that humans can muster the ability to communicate with language to begin with when no other species even comes close. Cases like these are surely a godsend for neurolinguists exploring the language-producing areas of the brain. It is only when one particular little thing ceases to function that we can identify which part of the brain ceased to function along with it.
Saying that, with FAS the changes in the brain affect pronunciation in a myriad of ways – timing, intonation, control of tongue placement, voicing errors, truncation of words, vowel or consonant distortions, deletions or substitutions and other unusual errors can all be a part of the package. Despite all this, speech remains intelligible, and merely sounds somewhat ‘foreign’ to the casual listener. For the sufferers of FAS however, their social lives are gravely affected, many falling into depression or becoming recluse as a result, and finding it difficult to come to terms with this new voice which they feel deeply alters their identity.
Because cases are so rare, treatment is pretty much non-existent, with the suffers not knowing whether the affliction is temporary or if it will stay with them for the rest of their lives. A few researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have launched a website for those seeking more information about FAS, and even they only mention one example from 2007 of a tentative treatment of FAS on an English-speaker who sounded ‘Swedish’, with no apparent success.