Accidentally foreign: The unseen challenges of Foreign Accent Syndrome

Authors: Nini Chrispeels & Lindsey Thomas, students of the European Master’s in Clinical Linguistics (, and Adrià Rofes, assistant professor of Neurolinguistics at the University of Groningen.

If you speak more than one language, you are probably familiar with not being able to sound like a native speaker. At least, you know you’re trying your best to speak a foreign language! And, you know, in the end, your accent is also part of your identity. But wouldn’t it feel quite discouraging if you sounded like a foreigner in your native language? This is exactly what happens to people with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS).

Foreign Accent Syndrome

Foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is a speech disorder causing people to speak with an accent different from their native language. Back in 1907, neurologist Pierre Marie described FAS for the first time: A Parisian man, who had been mute due to a stroke, started speaking again after nine years. Yet, the man spoke with an accent from a different French region 1. Ever since, FAS cases have been reported. More recently, a trilingual person with FAS only showed a foreign accent in two of his three languages, the third one sounded completely normal 2. FAS can affect timing, rhythm, but also the pronunciation of vowels or consonants. Moreover, different subtypes of FAS can be distinguished, depending on the underlying cause.

Researchers explain FAS in different ways, including abnormal positioning of the tongue 3, increased force of articulation 4, or either too much tensing 5 or relaxing 6 of the muscles of the vocal tract. Interestingly, there exist neurogenic and non-neurogenic types of FAS and, in fact, no one-size-fits-all explanation has been found, since different levels of speech are affected in different patients and thus not all FAS patients present the same symptoms.

The neurogenic form of FAS is caused by some form of brain injury, like a stroke, head trauma, a tumor, or multiple sclerosis 7. After a stroke and nine years of anarthria, a Parisian man emerged with a surprising twist: he spoke with the charm of an Alsatian accent 8, proving that even the brain enjoys a little regional flair. In another report, Sarah Colwill was also one of the few documented people to develop a new accent. She woke up from a migraine and discovered her Plymouth accent was gone and a Chinese accent had taken its place. She now felt like and was treated as a foreigner in her own city 9. However, Colwill was able to bond with Kay Russell who also developed FAS after a migraine. Kay’s Gloucestershire accent turned into a French accent. Seems like migraines have a way of giving us more than just headaches.

FAS is rare so most people do not know about it or think it will never happen to them or someone they know. However, London’s very own George Michael experienced a short bout of FAS 10. One December, after waking up from a coma caused by pneumonia, Michael spoke with a West Country British accent . The accent did not linger long and he went back to singing “Wake me up before you go-go, Don’t leave me hanging on like a yo-yo” with his very own accent.

While some people report having a new accent evokes the feeling of hearing a “stranger in the house” 11 and they grieve their loss of identity 12, others have a good laugh and talk about their funny experiences where strangers try and speak to them in a different language 13. Some people report that their condition has made them more confident and that it became an easy conversation starter 14. This happened to an American woman, Karen Butler, who woke up from dental surgery only to find that she sounded like a mix of English and Irish. She woke up with a few less teeth and a whole new accent. Upon waking up from the anesthesia, she sounded funny but the dentist blamed it on her swollen mouth. The swelling went away but her new accent was here to stay. There was talk that a mini stroke could have occurred while Butler was under anesthesia but due to insurance issues, she was not able to get a brain scan to determine if this was true. That did not bother Butler, though; she embraced her new accent and credited it with making her more outgoing.

FAS does not lead to an impairment in the comprehension of language and patients are still able to express themselves. But even though it might look like an innocent little disorder, FAS can lead to social stigma because people might view you differently than before and this psychological impact can even lead to a change of your sense of self. Monrad-Krohn 15 described the case of a Norwegian woman who started speaking with a German accent after being hit in the head by metal debris. The Norwegian language uses a distinction in tones to indicate a difference in meaning of different words, but the patient was no longer able to do this. Since this patient developed an accent perceived as being German at the time of the Second World War, the woman faced serious social exclusion to the point that merchants refused to serve her.

Not all described cases of FAS are related to a neurological cause. Sometimes FAS can be present due to psychological conditions with less clear neurological basis, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or even depression. An American man suffering from schizophrenia developed a British accent because he believed to be “in telepathic contact with Queen Elizabeth” 16. A Dutch woman suffered from episodes where she spoke with a Belgian Dutch accent and used German words, which were induced by high levels of stress and anxiety 17. She also suffered from hallucinations and disoriented behavior which were linked to her falling down stairs and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from losing her mother. The term ‘mixed FAS’ is used to describe patients who have a neurogenic form of FAS who psychologically change their identity to better suit their new accent. Ryalls and Whiteside 18 describe the case of an American woman who suffered from neurogenic FAS and started speaking with a British accent. Over the years, the woman started using more typically British words and expressions. Since, for her, it was easier to make people believe she was actually from England rather than having to explain her condition.

So, think about it, FAS can get you speaking with a different accent. That will probably be the only symptom you have and, indeed, some people adapt to it and some others have a harder time. The reasons of FAS can be neurogenic or not. Still, even though you may one day wake up sounding Italian, that does not mean you have a stronger staying to still top your pizza with pineapple and chicken! And do not ever think of drinking cappuccino after midday!


Adrià received funding from the Dutch Research Council (NWO, 406.XS.01.050).


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