Monday, May 31, 2010

Foreign Accent Syndrome's coming! It's a long one with my part of the story at the end.

This is me with my maternal grandparents

I read about this on the weekend and I was stunned! It’s a crazy disease to get and sounds like something I would make up, an invention. We all learn that a good foreign accent gets us better a service at the public library, where they go head over heals to help you, but in reality, this one is a winner!

Brigid SchulteThe Washington Post
WASHINGTON (May 29, 2010)
Some people fall on their heads and wake up with their memories wiped out. A few revive with their personalities totally changed. Others die. Robin Jenks Vanderlip fell down a stairwell, smacked her head and woke up speaking with a Russian accent.
Vanderlip has never been to Russia. She doesn't remember ever hearing a Russian accent. She lives in Fairfax County, Va., was born in Pennsylvania and went to college on the Eastern Shore. Yet since that fall in May 2007, the first question she gets from strangers is: "Where are you from?"
"They say your life can change in an instant," she said in what sounds like a Russian accent. "Mine did."
For 42 years, Vanderlip, whose case is being studied at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland, spoke with what neurologist Allen Braun called a typical mid-Atlantic American accent. But since the fall, her clipped way with consonants, dropping the final "s" from some plural words, saying "dis" and "dat" for "this" and "that," or "wiz" instead of "with," and her formation of vowels "home" sounds more like "herm," "well" sounds like "wuhl" identify her more like a Moscow transplant. The more fatigued she becomes, the thicker her accent grows.
What she has, Braun and other doctors say, is foreign accent syndrome (FAS), a legitimate though rare and little understood medical condition that can follow a serious brain injury. "It does sound strange," Braun said. "It certainly does sound like someone has a foreign accent."
The syndrome was first described by a neurologist in the closing days of the Second World War, when a Norwegian woman injured by a shrapnel hit to the head fell into a coma and woke up speaking, most unfortunately for her, with a German accent. (Fellow Norwegians ostracized her as a result, according to the medical literature.)
Since then, fewer than 60 cases have been reported worldwide.
Puzzled doctors have studied a Louisiana woman who, after a brain injury, suddenly began speaking with a Cajun dialect; a woman from the Newcastle region of England who speaks like a Jamaican; and a Boston man who developed what sounded like a Scottish burr. There are Americans who have developed British-sounding accents, Britons who sound French, a Japanese stroke patient with a Korean accent, and a Spaniard who acquired a thick Hungarian accent.
"The first time I heard about foreign accent syndrome, I thought, 'This is not true, this is somebody's joke,'" said Julius Fridriksson, who has studied brain images of patients suffering from the malady at the University of South Carolina, and who, as a native of Iceland, speaks English with a slight accent.
Then he began working with a patient who spoke with a southern U.S. accent all his life, but woke from a stroke sounding like a proper British gent. "This was an accent he could not control."
Scientists are quick to point out that these are not bona fide accents. Rather, in a way no one quite understands, the damage to the brain disrupts speech formation.
Shelia Blumstein, a Brown University linguist who has written extensively on foreign accent syndrome, said sufferers typically produce grammatically correct language, unlike many stroke or brain injury victims. But subtle changes in intonation make syndrome sufferers sound foreign. No amount of therapy seems to reverse that.
"I did have one patient who had a stroke and developed foreign accent syndrome, then had another stroke and it disappeared."
Two days after her fall, Vanderlip awoke unable to speak. Terrified, a friend called 911 and Vanderlip was rushed to the hospital, where an MRI showed she'd had a stroke.
Working with a speech therapist, she was able to make rudimentary sounds and slowly relearn how to speak, but with a Russian-sounding accent. When the accent remained after Vanderlip regained speaking ability, a neurologist diagnosed FAS.
Since the fall, it's not only her accent that's changed. She's become forgetful and tires easily. Formerly loquacious and eloquent, friends say, she's become introverted, can't speak coherently for more than 35 minutes at a time and has lost her job as a regional manager for the nonprofit Operation Hope. A single mother of two, she lives off savings and disability payments.
Andrew Uscher, a longtime friend, said many of Vanderlip's friends have drifted away as she has struggled with her injury, financial issues and depression.
"When we go out, people just assume she's from another country," he said. "It bothers her, not that people think she's foreign instead of American, but that it doesn't sound like her. It's not her normal speech pattern. And we all like to be true to who we are."
Nearly three years after she slipped on stairs at the National 4-H Council building in Chevy Chase, Md., grabbed for a handrail, hurled backwards, hit her head and screamed for help, Vanderlip filed suit against the 4-H, alleging the stairs were unsafe and seeking at least $1 million in damages.
On her answering machine, Vanderlip has preserved her old voice as a greeting. "Please leave your message and we'll get back to you as soon as we can." She sounds easy, confident, articulate. And American. Her eyes redden when she hears it.
"When I sound different, people think that I'm different," she said. "To this day, my daughter is nervous about me going on field trips or working in the classroom, because she's a little embarrassed about how I sound."
Vanderlip, who is studying brain injury education at George Washington University, said the incredulous looks she gets when she explains that she's a native-born American can get wearing. She watched, devastated, she said, as a Fox News Channel report on her lawsuit poked fun, with anchor Megyn Kelly repeatedly referring to her as "Inga from Sveden" and legal commentator Lis Wiehl saying, "She says she's going to be damaged because now some people think she has this nice, sexy Danish accent? I don't think so!"
She and her children have started taking vacations abroad, where she can lose herself in a polyglot of accents. "I feel there's no one to judge me in a foreign country," she said. "I don't feel so out of place."

From Wikopedia:
Foreign accent syndrome is a rare medical condition involving speech production that usually occurs as a side effect of severe brain injury, such as a stroke or head trauma. Two cases have been reported of individuals with the condition as a development problem [1] and one associated with severe migraine. [2] Between 1941 and 2009 there have been sixty recorded cases.[1] Its symptoms result from distorted articulatory planning and coordination processes. It must be emphasized that the speaker does not suddenly gain a foreign language (vocabulary, syntax, grammar, etc); they merely pronounce their native language with a foreign or dialectical accent. Despite a recent unconfirmed news report that a Croatian speaker has gained the ability to speak fluent German after emergence from a coma[3], there has been no verified case where a patient's foreign language skills have improved after a brain injury.
To the untrained ear, those with the syndrome sound as though they speak their
native languages with a foreign accent; for example, an American native speaker of English might sound as though they speak with a south-eastern English accent, or a native British speaker might speak with a New York American accent. However, researchers at Oxford University have found that certain, specific parts of the brain were injured in some foreign-accent syndrome cases, indicating that certain parts of the brain control various linguistic functions, and damage could result in altered pitch or mispronounced syllables, causing speech patterns to be distorted in a non-specific manner. More recently, there is mounting evidence that the cerebellum, which controls motor function, may be crucially involved in some cases of foreign accent syndrome, reinforcing the notion that speech pattern alteration is mechanical, and thus non-specific.[4][5] Thus, the perception of a foreign accent is likely a case of pareidolia on the part of the listener.
For example, damage to the brain might result in difficulty pronouncing the letter 'r' at the end of words, forcing a
rhotic speaker to use a non-rhotic accent, even if they have never spoken with one. In the U.S., non-rhoticity is a particularly notable feature of a Boston accent, thus the person might seem to speak with a Boston accent to the casual listener. However, many of the other features of a Boston accent may be wholly missing.
who?] have suggested that in order to maintain a sense of normality and flow, someone with the syndrome then augments the accent effect by imitating the rest of the accent. Depending on how important a certain phoneme is to a person's original accent, they might find speaking in a different accent to be much easier and their usual accent very difficult to consistently pronounce after some motor skills have been lost.
The condition was first described in 1907 by the French neurologist
Pierre Marie.[6] and another early case was reported in a Czech study in 1919.[7] Other well-known cases of the syndrome have included one that occurred in Norway in 1941 after a young woman, Astrid L., suffered a head injury from shrapnel during an air-raid. After apparently recovering from the injury she was left with what sounded like a strong German accent and was shunned by her fellow Norwegians.[8] Another well-known case is that of Judi Roberts, also known as Tiffany Noel, who was born and raised in Indiana, USA. In 1999, at the age of 57, Roberts suffered a stroke and after recovering her voice spoke with what resembled an English accent, though she never had been to Britain.[9][10]
In January 2006 an Australian man suffered a stroke as a result of valium abuse while on holiday in Thailand. When he awoke his friends noticed he spoke with a mixture of Irish and American accents, sometimes swapping between the two mid sentence. This was the first recorded example of dual foreign accent syndrome.[citation needed]
A further case of foreign accent syndrome occurred to Linda Walker, a 60-year-old woman from the
Newcastle area of UK. Again following a stroke her normal Geordie accent was transformed and has been variously described as resembling a Jamaican, as well as a French Canadian, Italian and a Slovak accent.[11] She was interviewed by BBC News 24[12] and appeared on the Richard and Judy show in the UK in July 2006 to speak of her ordeal.
In the July 2008 issue of the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, researchers from
McMaster University reported a study where a woman from Windsor, Ontario, after suffering a stroke, began speaking with what some people described as a Newfoundland accent.[13][14]
In 2008 Cindy Lou Romberg of Port Angeles, Washington, who had suffered a brain injury 17 years earlier, developed foreign accent syndrome after a neck adjustment from her chiropractor. A visit to the hospital ruled out a stroke. Afterwards she spoke with a Russian accent and even appeared to make the grammatical mistakes of a Russian speaking English, as if English was not her native language. She was featured on the Discovery Health Channel's Mystery ER show on the 26 October 2008 [15] and was also featured on the October 31 edition of Inside Edition.
In 2010 the first case associated with severe
migraine was recorded. Sarah Colwill, a frequent migraine sufferer from Devon in the UK, experienced a headache so extreme that she had to call an ambulance. When waking in the hospital later her accent sounded Chinese.

Going forward from here, I thought about how old people, when I was a kid, at least all of them I knew, had Yiddish accents. There was a time when I almost believed that it came with age, which would make it coincide with FAS. However, at that time, most old people I knew had come to the US from Europe, either at the turn of the century or after the WWII. Therefore, all European accents I heard were Yiddish.

My grandfather had a thick Yiddish accent, but spoke English for most of his life. Arriving in the US as a young man and living until he was 92, he was a mostly English speaker except when he and my grandmother or my mother and father had something they didn’t want me to understand, then they would slip into Yiddish. As a coping mechanism, I learned to speak some Yiddish, at least enough to keep me current with what they were saying about me.

Late in his life we were all at a barbeque at our house when my boys, being pretty young, no older than 9, 6 and 3, urged me to come over and help them. They were talking to my grandfather and they all, including my grandfather, were frustrated.

What’s wrong”, I asked, and my grandfather told me in Yiddish that they didn’t understand him. I told him, “They could understand you if you spoke to them in English”. He said (in Yiddish)," I am speaking to them in English!” “You’re speaking to them in Yiddish!” I exclaimed.

He waved his hand at me, a sign of obvious frustration, and said he didn’t understand why they couldn’t understand, because I understood.

OK, so now that I'm old, I expect to develop a Yiddish accent which will help me explain this story a little bit better!


  1. I really enjoyed your blog entry. As someone with FAS we often find outside articles and writings to be very sarcastic and mocking. Thank you for including the references with your post.


  3. This article is very well written! Although I had read it a very long time ago, it has just recently been brought back to my attention. It is so well done that I shall link to it via and also FaceBook page Foreign Accent Syndrome Awareness Group as we are trying to help raise awareness and understanding of FAS. I would really like to know the NAMES of the individuals that were not listed in the article if you know them. Aside from Ms. Vanderlip, I am not sure who the other cases might be. I have FAS since May 2009 and am working with others in an organized way to put together articles and research to be able to increase understanding, help those who are new cases and encourage those who are still meeting up with many of the same effects of ignorance in general population as well as the uniformed medical arena.

    Your article helps to humanize the condition rather than exploit and sensationalize it. I would like to encourage you to write a new blog post in regard to foreign accent syndrome with an update of any new insight you have noticed in the last two years. May your days be blessed!

  4. I had a Tumor on the left side of my head in 2009, It was removed in 2011, Now I have this Accent, and It will not go away, I live in Oklahoma, am I suppose to report this?