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The word "why" in various languages
Certain forms of brain damage can affect a patient's accent

Medical mystery

June 14, 2010

Foreign Accent Syndrome is an extremely rare brain disorder that, as the name implies, causes its sufferers to speak as if they are from a foreign country. We spoke with an expert on the subject.


Imagine you sustained a head injury which put you in a coma, and that upon regaining consciousness, your voice sounded Irish or Russian - even if you'd never been to Ireland or Russia before. It's called Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), and while it may sound farfetched, it's very real. Deutsche Welle spoke with Prof. Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, is one of the world's foremost experts on the topic.

Deutsche Welle: What is Foreign Accent Syndrome, and what causes it?

Prof. Sophie Scott: It's a change in somebody's voice which means that they no longer sound to their fellow countrymen as if they have an accent from that region. Normally, there's been some kind of brain damage - not necessarily very extensive damage - that's given them difficulty in the production of speech, which to our ear, sounds like a foreign accent. The rhythm of their speech can change, and they can also make very specific errors on particular phonemes in the speech, so instead of saying "the" they might be saying "duh," or their vowels can be different, so instead of saying "it" they might be saying "eet." It's not genuinely a real foreign accent, it's more to do with how we label what people sound like.

Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London
Sophie Scott is a neuroscientist at University College LondonImage: Sophie Scott

How many people do you estimate are afflicted with FAS?

There have not been very many cases reported, although there are more being talked about now as it's becoming more widely discussed. However, speech production problems following a head injury such as a stroke are quite common, and it seems likely that what we're seeing in FAS is a particular sub-group of people who've also got the more common condition called dysphasia, where people have a problem in producing speech. Normally that just sounds like somebody who's speaking with great difficulty, and their speech sounds slurred. In FAS, we start hearing the accent rather than the speech difficulty.

Is there a cure? Can people ever regain the way they once spoke?

Some people have found it very useful to get speech and language therapy and I would certainly suggest that as the first port of call. It has to be said though that some people find it to be a lasting problem, and it can be very frustrating for people to no longer sound the way that they used to.

Is there a most common accent that is picked up? You've explained that it's not really an accent, but many people say for example, that the "accent" sounds Russian, maybe, or Chinese.

It seems to vary depending on where you are in the world. If you're in Britain, people with FAS will very commonly be described as sounding French or German, because those are accents that British people are familiar with. If you're in America, you'll hear English accents being described as the foreign accent. What this tells you is that people label the accents as ones they're used to hearing rather than what's actually there. For example, if I play some speech of somebody with FAS to some of my students, the ones from Great Britain will hear someone speaking with a foreign accent, but the non-native English speakers will hear someone speaking with a difficulty.

There were reports about a girl in Croatia who woke up from a coma speaking German. She wasn't actually speaking perfect German, she had just picked up words from school and television, but she had lost the ability to speak her mother tongue. Is this related to FAS?

I think this is more related to aphasia, a condition where someone really starts to lose language. In FAS, people can still understand the speech they hear and they know what they want to say. In aphasia, people can lose whole chunks of language, so they can find it impossible to speak at all, or to understand at all what they hear. In these cases where people revert back to a language they learned in infancy or they can only speak something that they've learned more recently, that seems to have more to do with being able to switch between languages, or accessing a language that was learned more recently.

Interview: Mark Mattox
Editor: Anke Rasper

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