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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?

In extremely rare cases, head injuries and psychological trauma affect victims in a highly unusual way. Individuals begin to speak with foreign accents one day without training or purposeful thought. While intriguing to the outside observer, the changes may signal an unidentified form of trauma or impact to the brain’s speech centers.

Defining Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS)

Foreign Accent Syndrome can occur in a number of different situations. While most reported cases occur as the result of neurological damage from a stroke, physical trauma, or unclear causes, some cases arise from purely psychological conditions such as depression or intense emotional trauma.

Researchers have not yet pinpointed the exact physical mechanisms that change a person’s speech patterns in FAS cases, but one study conducted in London suggests a possible explanation. The condition may arise from impairments in the pathway connecting the language areas in the front of the brain to the cerebellum.

In documented cases, one Texan woke up from surgery speaking with a British accent. A soccer player in Atlanta who suffered a concussion began speaking fluent Spanish. A Navy vet with amnesia in California only spoke in Swedish. The peculiar condition often changes speech patterns, but it may also enable victims to speak an entirely different language.

Over time, some FAS sufferers will lose their accent or foreign speaking capabilities. Others may permanently speak in a new way. Depending on the condition and the severity of trauma, medical professionals may treat FAS with medication or therapy.

Is FAS Dangerous?

The sudden manifestation of FAS symptoms can indicate an undiagnosed condition or complication, but the experience of FAS poses no health threat in and of itself. In some cases, speaking a new language or a different accent may complicate social situations and cause emotional stress.

Diagnosing FAS

To diagnose a true case of FAS, many medical professionals – including neurologists, psychologists, and speech-language pathologists – may work together to identify symptoms and uncover psychological or physical trauma. Professionals may look beyond a patient’s physical symptoms to language exposure, education, and travel experience. Using speech and language tests, speech-language pathologists may recognize patterns in keeping with other FAS cases. After diagnosis, a medical professional may recommend treatment based on individual symptoms, conditions, and experiences.

Other Speech Disorders

Brain injuries manifest in numerous different ways. Depending on the location, cause, and type of damage, victims can experience anything from motor impairment to seeing the world upside down. When an injury impacts the speech centers of the brain (mostly in the left hemisphere), a victim may experience several types of speech disorders. In a disorder known as dysarthria, patients experience respiratory weakness and trouble moving their facial muscles. The condition may cause slurring, inaudible vocalization, hoarseness, and abnormal speech rhythm. Aphasia affects a person’s ability to process speech and language (oral and written communication).

Unlike FAS, many other speech-related conditions significantly impact an individual’s life. Some who suffer speech impairment may experience additional brain damage and never live independently again. Every injury creates a different experience and requires personalized treatments and accommodations.

What to Do if You Suspect FAS in a Loved One

If you recognize new and unusual speech patterns in a friend, colleague, or family member, encourage him or her to seek medical attention quickly. Speech abnormality may indicate the presence of a stroke, a psychological crisis, physical damage, or a complex migraine. Only a medical professional can interpret and diagnose the complex and sometimes subtle symptoms of brain injuries.

After an injury, an individual may experience a range of temporary and permanent symptoms. In cases involving preventable physical trauma, consider discussing your legal options with an attorney. While FAS may not impact someone’s life in the long term, accompanying conditions may.

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