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Foreign accent syndrome is a rare medical condition in which a person suddenly begins to speak in a different accent (which is foreign). IN foreign accent syndrome, the affected person speaks the normal native (or usual language), but in a different accent (not in a different language). Some common accent changes are from Japanese to Korean, British English to French, American-English to British English, and Spanish to Hungarian.
1907 marks the year when Foreign Accent Syndrome was described for the first time. It was discovered by a French neurologist, Pierre Marie, native of Paris, and who served as an assistant neurologist to the renowned French neurologist Jean- Marie Charcot. His name is also associated with several other diseases that affect the nervous system, such as "Marie's anarthria" and "Marie's ataxia", just to name a few. Later on in 1919, another case of Foreign Accent Syndrome was reported in a study made in Czech Republic, and in 1941 in a young woman (from Norway) who developed a strong German accent after a severe head injury from a shrapnel. Between 1941 and 2009, approximately 61 cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome have been reported in the world.
How Does Foreign Accent Syndrome Develop?
Foreign Accent Syndrome can develop from several medical conditions affecting the brain. On top of the list, strokes are the most common causes for this disorder.
Demyelinating diseases of the brain such as Multiple Sclerosis can also be the cause of Foreign Accent Syndrome. In fact, there has been a reported case of the disorder developing after that disease.
Researchers have identified certain parts of the brain to be associated with specific linguistic abilities. Based on the affected brain area, the overall speech can be altered either by pitch, or by pronunciation (wrongful pronunciation of certain syllables), or by intonation and accents in the speech. Other speech alterations include vowel distortions, substitutions or prolongations (for example, instead of saying “yes”, one might say “yeah” or “yah”). Affected persons may also experience words insertion (such as inserting “uh” or “uhm” before every sentence), which they never used to do before.
In some cases, all those variants can be affected and the resulting speech sounds as if it were said in a foreign accent. It has been hypothesized that the cerebellum (part of the brain which controls motor coordination) might be involved in the pathophysiology of foreign accent syndrome, and this could support the facts according to which the disturbance in this condition is of a mechanical nature, secondary to brain injury.
Although for most people it might seem as if the individuals suffering from foreign accent syndrome are executing their speech without difficulties, the affected individuals actually feel like they are suffering from a speech disorder as this seems very unnatural to them. A lot of patients affected by the disorder report that the condition is a source of great distress in their personal life.