According to PERCOMPUTER, the foreign accent syndrome is a rarely explored world language disorder. So far, only 60 cases from England, America, Germany and Australia have been documented. The tone of the voice changes suddenly and for no apparent reason. Those affected lose their natural language pattern and take on the accent of a foreign language. Doctors suspect that the cause is neurological diseases, with which the patients adopt a strange-sounding speech melody that goes back to a vocal disorder.
What is Foreign Language Accent Syndrome?
Since foreign language accent syndrome is an extremely rare language disorder that has only been diagnosed 60 times worldwide, research is still in its infancy. The causes are largely unclear. Doctors attribute this language disorder, with which patients adopt the accent of a foreign language, to a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, for example as a result of an accident. This voice development disorder does not arise spontaneously and in isolation, but always in connection with the aforementioned factors.
Most of the cases of foreign language accent syndrome documented to date are due to brain injury following an accident or a stroke. According to the current state of research, scientists assume that injuries to the left brain hemisphere are responsible for this language disorder.
A final localization of this hemisphere has not been possible so far. Since the foreign speech melody occurs immediately after the ability to speak is regained, linguists suspect that disorders in the motor skills center or in the language center are responsible for the changed language pattern.
Symptoms, ailments & signs
In some cases, medical professionals have documented the temporary occurrence of speech loss following a neurological disease. The symptoms of foreign language accent syndrome occur immediately after a traumatic brain injury, a stroke or, in rare cases, after a migraine attack.
Some of those affected show this language disorder even without a phase of temporary loss of language. A permanent change in the accustomed speech melody is characteristic of this clinical picture. The changed speech behavior is often uncomfortable for outsiders, the pitch is perceived as unnaturally high with a squeaky undertone. The patient’s new pronunciation is far removed from the original colloquial language, which is why it is interpreted as a foreign language, foreign accent or dialect.
Diagnosis & course
A patient from England suddenly speaks with a Chinese accent after a severe migraine attack, although she has never traveled to China and has not learned the Chinese language. Originally, this language disorder was not attributed to the extremely severe migraine attack that preceded this symptom, but to a stroke caused by dilated blood vessels.
One of the first known cases was documented in 1941. A Norwegian woman suddenly spoke with a German accent after a severe head injury caused by a shrapnel. She got into trouble with her compatriots, who she thought were a German spy. After a third stroke, a woman from Thuringia suddenly speaks German with a Swiss accent.
Further case studies are an American woman who speaks with an Australian accent after a dental operation and an Australian woman who underlines her mother tongue with a French melody after an accident. The final diagnosis is not easy as there is little research into this language disorder.
Only the characteristic symptom of a changed speech melody, with which the patient speaks with a foreign accent, gives a hint in the right direction. Even if this voice development disorder is not life-threatening, it still causes major disadvantages for those affected, which can even lead to a loss of identity. Due to their mother tongue, their social environment and their personality, every person has a unique linguistic melody that makes them unmistakable.
If the speech pattern changes suddenly and for no apparent reason, this can lead to severe psychological stress, as the patient is perceived very differently from his environment. Some patients only have a slightly different pronunciation, while others in turn, with a completely changed language pattern, forcibly move away from their identity known to the social environment.
Often, those affected are shown little understanding because the behavior is perceived as affected, unnatural and deliberate. In some cases, patients can be happy if their changed speech pattern is just seen as funny. Drastic reactions are possible, especially in everyday working life, as in this case it is often not possible to explain the changed language behavior. Exclusion and isolation, which lead to further psychological problems, can result.
The foreign language accent syndrome is not itself a medical complication. Human health is in most cases not impaired by this syndrome. Due to the syndrome, the patient speaks in a different accent after a stroke. However, this has no effect on the rest of the health of the person concerned.
Foreign language accent syndrome can have a negative impact on people’s environment and social relationships, although this rarely occurs. In difficult cases, a short-term loss of language ability is possible. This loss is not permanent and some speech impairment may occur after loss.
The foreign language accent syndrome can also develop after a severe migraine and is not permanent. There are no further complaints here. Most people are uncomfortable with Foreign Language Accent Syndrome, which leads to decreased self-esteem and often shame. It is no longer possible to lead an ordinary life.
It is not uncommon for those affected to be perceived bizarre by those around them and, above all, by strangers. This can lead to severe depression and psychological difficulties. Treatment by a psychologist is possible. Foreign language accent syndrome cannot be addressed directly. However, it is possible to adjust the accent with the help of language exercises. There are no further complaints here either.
When should you go to the doctor?
In the case of foreign language accent syndrome, it is usually not necessary to see a doctor. There are no impairments in coping with everyday life or in speaking. The voice of the person affected has changed, but other people can still understand him well. It is not a speech defect that must be investigated or treated as a matter of principle. Rather, the accent is changed and not controllable.
Since no further physical or mental changes or abnormalities occur with the foreign language accent syndrome, a visit to the doctor is only necessary in most cases if there are secondary illnesses. A doctor should be consulted if headaches or migraines occur. In the event of sleep disorders, inner restlessness or reduced performance, a doctor should be consulted. Help is also needed whenever emotional or mental problems arise.
Decreased well-being, depressive moods or a lack of self-confidence are signs and reasons for which a doctor or therapist should be consulted. In the case of conspicuous social behavior, shame or the loss of quality of life, there is an emotional distress that should be assessed by a doctor or therapist. If the foreign language accent syndrome causes other language problems such as stuttering, a doctor should be consulted. If the foreign language is required for professional reasons, supportive speech therapy can be used for individual language training.
Treatment & Therapy
Since this is a language disorder that occurs extremely rarely worldwide, the research results are so far inadequate and the causes have not been conclusively documented. There is therefore no classic therapy tailored to the foreign language accent syndrome. Most of the patients known to date have undergone speech therapy. However, it is not yet clear whether this is suitable for restoring the natural language behavior of the patient.
If this language disorder can be traced back to a stroke or a brain injury after an accident, the classic therapy methods that are available for these diseases are available. In addition to surgical interventions and the allocation of medication, speech and physiotherapy are also available in this case.
Outlook & forecast
A reliable extraction of the prognosis in the case of foreign language accent syndrome cannot yet be made with regard to a possible cure. The speech therapies that are used here in a few individual cases are experimental rather than indicated. Accordingly, the observation of the few known victims remains to be seen before conclusions can be drawn about the chances of recovery and relapse.
The foreign language accent syndrome also harbors many risks of psychological stress. Assuming that those affected lose part of their identity due to their changed speech melody, their social environment will also change. Work colleagues, relatives and friends will sometimes react confused or with incomprehension. This not infrequently leads to psychological complaints, which can extend to depression.
As a result, those affected can become completely isolated. Because the chances of recovery from foreign language accent syndrome are so uncertain, those affected feel a long-lasting feeling of uncertainty or helplessness.
However, there are isolated cases in which people claim that they temporarily had an accent after a coma, a stroke or a similar traumatic stress. But this has passed. It is therefore quite possible that the foreign language accent syndrome will resolve spontaneously.
Since it is a voice development disorder that occurs in connection with brain injuries, strokes or migraine attacks, prevention in the clinical sense is not possible. The reason why the foreign language accent syndrome occurs in some patients with a stroke or brain injury and not in others has not yet been adequately researched.
Follow-up care for the extremely rare foreign language accent syndrome is rather modest, given the only 60 cases known to date. Due to the rarity of the syndrome, there is a lack of treatment concepts. There appears to be a neurological disorder in the language center. If you knew how this came about, treatment and follow-up care would sometimes be possible.
So far, follow-up measures have been limited to the treatment of the underlying disease that occurs after a stroke, cerebral haemorrhage or traumatic brain injury.
In the case of foreign language accent syndrome, the concept, type and length of follow-up care depend on the underlying disease. Surgical, orthopedic, physiotherapeutic or neurological measures may be necessary to improve the symptoms of the underlying disorder. The symptoms of foreign language accent syndrome, which affect the left hemisphere, may also improve.
In rare cases, foreign language accent syndrome manifests itself after a severe migraine attack. Often this is not the actual cause, but the stroke symptoms. Accordingly, follow-up care for migraines does not bring any improvement. It is important, however, that those affected can lose their sense of their identity. In addition, professional problems can arise. Psychotherapeutic help and language training can therefore be useful.
You can do that yourself
Since the foreign language accent syndrome has so far been little researched and only diagnosed in 60 cases, there is hardly any experience in treatment. Rather, this depends on the triggering illness (traumatic brain injury, stroke).
In the case of a speech disorder, speech therapy with a specialist speech therapist is always the best option. Through targeted training, this can also influence the pitch of the voice and speaking behavior. This could improve the squeaky tone of voice present in those with foreign language accent syndrome.
Also, tensions in the back, neck and head area may affect the speech behavior. Visiting physiotherapy or an osteopath helps relieve blockages and tension. In addition, those affected should reduce the risk of another stroke – if this is the cause of the disease.
This is achieved through a healthy diet rich in vital substances and regular exercise in the fresh air. Furthermore, everything helps that is also good for the soul and reduces stress. These can include mindfulness exercises such as yoga and Chi Gong as well as relaxation methods such as progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobsen or autogenic training.
The social environment often reacts to the changes in pronunciation in a strange way. However, maintaining social contact is fundamental to the recovery process. Friends and relatives should therefore find out about the disease. Visiting a self-help group can also offer support to those affected and their relatives.