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Foreign Accent Syndrome and Identity

hmarcia's picture

Herman Marcia

Professor Grobstein 

Neurobiology and Behavior 

First Web Paper

Foreign Accent Syndrome and Identity

The brain plays an important role in all aspects of our physical lives, such as the development of our five senses, but its role in the development of less tangible things, like identity, remains a mystery.  The extend that the brain plays with something as abstract (or intangible) as identity can be measured through accents.  Accents are a vital portion of our identity.
Through our accents we are able to declare our affiliation with a specific culture or national group, and at the same time, accents allow listeners to classify what we are not.  After a certain age in a person's development, the ability to develop new accents deteriorate, and become nearly impossible to eliminate.  This explains why when adults learning new languages, they often retain the accent of their first language in their newly acquired ones.  An example of this phenomenon is the native French speaker who learned English as an adult, and as a result speaks English with a French accent.  Therefore, when this person speaks to a native English speaker (an American in this case), the American listener immediately identifies him as a non-native English speaker and depending on the heaviness of the accent, might even determine that the speaker is French.  How accents develop and remain fix after childhood remains a mystery for scientists.  It is not known well how language develops in the mind, and there is a few data on the role of the brain in the development of accents.  Promising researching in Foreign Accent Syndrome, a neurologically based speech disorder, can lead to a greater understanding in the relationship between the brain and accents (Coleman, Gurd 341.)

Foreign Accent Syndrome arise from various different kinds of neurological accidents, which include head injuries and mild strokes (Coleman, Gurd 341.)  These head injuries and strokes then lead to a sudden change in the victim's speech.  The victim's speech remains completely intelligible and are mostly fluent (Coleman, Gurd 341.)  The change is noticeable when family and friends, who were familiar with the victim's accent before the head injury or stroke, realize that there has been an "overnight" change in accent (Cole, Gurd 341.)  Those with Foreign Accent Syndrome sound like normal speakers who have a foreign accent rather than an impaired speaker (Blumstein, Kurowski 347.)

There exist two famous cases of those with Foreign Accent Syndrome.  The first case is of a British woman from Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom, who after suffering from a stroke, awoke with an "accent" different from her normal one (Bunyan.)  People believed that she had a Jamaican or Eastern European accent (Bunyan.)  The second case is of an American woman from Indiana, who awoke from a stroke to discover that she lost her normal accent and had instead developed into what people considered to be a British accent (Stroke.)  In interviews to the press, both women complained about losing a piece of their identity and having to confront people who do not believe them when they say that they are from their respective areas.  In the American case, the woman complained of not knowing who she was when she spoke.  These comments by the two women highlight the importance that accents play in identity and integral the brain is.  The brain produces the accents and it is also the brain that listens for the accent, which determines your origins.  Anything damaging the brain, leads to consequences that may alter your identity.  This demonstrates the intertwining relationship between the brain and identity.   

In the last eighty years, there have only been a little over of one hundred cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome, and as a result there is very little neurological data on the syndrome.  Of the few patients who doctors have declared to have Foreign Accent Syndrome, there does exist an pattern in the neurological trauma that presents itself.  In all the patients, there are lesions in the anterior of the left hemisphere (Blumstein, Kurowski 347.)  Head injuries or strokes lead to these lesions.  In most of the patients, smaller lesions exists in the Broca's area (a part of the brain associated with language production and processing), the adjacent inferior motor strip, and the middle frontal gyrus (Blumstein, Kurowski 347.)  There are also lesions in the in the subcortical areas, which appear to involve the basal ganglis structures (structures associated with one's ability to learn) (Blumstein, Kurowski 347.)  These physically findings all suggest that Foreign Accent Syndrome all emerge as consequences of damage to the areas associated with one's speech motor system and the neurons involved with language and learning (Blumstein, Kurowski 347.) 
The brain constructs and process actions such as language, which in turn lead to the creation of identities.  The way our brain works with language allow us to express our origins in subtle ways, and in this case, such as our accents.  Despite there being only a few hundred cases of patients with Foreign Accent Syndrome, there exists of pattern of lesions, which appear to lead to the development of Foreign Accent Syndrome.  These lesions affect the parts of the brains that are associated with language development and processing, but also with learning.  These particular lesions indicate two things.  The first is that there is damage to the language motor systems of the brain.  This explains the difference in pronunciation for the patients.  The second thing that these lesions show is that the damage in the parts associated with learning, imply that these patients have forgotten how to "properly" pronounce.  This amnesia might lead the brain to search for other pronunciations that it might have stored somewhere.  This would explain the reasons why those with Foreign Accent Syndrome develop a "foreign" accent.  These findings also suggest that the brain actively creates (or aids in the creation) of identities, since after losing the "original" accent, the brain attempts to find a replacement.  There is something important to having an accent, which the brain is aware of.  The brain creates identities, and anything altering the brain in turns alters your identity.                  

Work Cited

Coleman, John and Jennifer Gurd.  "Introduction to the theme issue on foreign accent syndrome."  Journal of Neurolinguistics 19.5 (1996): 341-345.  Print.  
Blumstein, S.E. and Karthleen Kurowski.  "The foreign accent syndrome: A perspective." Journal of Neurolinguistics 19.5 (1996): 346-355.  Print.

Bunyan, Nigel.  "Geordie wakes after stroke with new accent." Telegraph 04/06/2007.  Online.

"Stroke gives woman British accent." BBC News 2006/07/04.  Online.


Kristina H's picture

FAS documentary

Major cable network is looking for people who have experienced Foreign Accent Syndrome for a new medical docu-series. Please email us for more info -

Serendip Visitor's picture

Possible Foreign Accent Sydnrome person

To whom it may concern:

I would like you to contact me because I think I have this rare syndrome. I have been dealing already with this issue for almost six years. The neurologist in Nashville, TN and in Mexico, City gave me a diagnosis but it has been difficult for me because to deal with it; they do not understand, people who met me before, friends and specially my family can not explain why my accent change and me neither. Please, if this is a serious research, I am asking you to contact me so I can tell you more about it. I thought I was the only person dealing with this problem. It is really frustrating and hard to explain to people...
I appreciate your time and attention,
Best regards,

Paul Grobstein's picture

foreign accent syndrome: implications and issues

How one speaks is certainly a part of one's "identity," both for others and to oneself.  And there is no doubt but that that can be altered in both dramatic and subtle ways by brain damage.  What seems to be still a bit up in the air is whether cases of "foreign accent syndrome" are well-named, ie whether the observed subtle changes in speech actually correspond to "foreign accents" or are simply so interpreted by listeners (and perhaps speakers).  See Journal of Neurolinguistics, 2006