File this under strange but true: I recently saw a news story about a woman who had minor dental surgery and woke up from the operation speaking with a foreign accent. Post-surgery, Oregon native Karen Butler awoke to find she now spoke with a hodgepodge European accent. Doctors thought it might fade, but two years later, the foreign accent remains. The cause: Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS)–a rare disorder reported in fewer than 100 people. To hear Karen Butler’s original voice, preserved on her answering machine, and her “new” accent, you can watch this video.
This sounds like something out of a bad spy movie–so how did it happen in real life? The most likely cause is a tiny stroke that occurred during the surgery, in a very specific area of the brain. The stroke affected a part of the brain associated with intonation and articulation of speech, but not the fundamentals of speech itself or any of Ms. Butler’s other functions and faculties. Unlike Karen Butler, most people who report experiencing FAS have other complications from more severe strokes that affect the intonation/articulation brain region in addition to other brain regions. Ms. Butler’s case is interesting because her only symptom is FAS.
William Katz and Diane Garst of the University of Texas at Dallas have done some research on this rare disorder. To dig into some before-and-after speech samples and links to papers and case studies, you can visit their FAS website. There are also links to journal papers and reported cases on the FAS Wiki page.
Reading about different people affected by FAS, it seems a sense of humor and a good attitude about it are helpful in dealing with it. Some affected people take their new accent in stride, while others become depressed and feel a loss of identity that negatively affects their lives.
It’s hard to imagine going in for oral surgery and waking up with a foreign accent, but this is another interesting example of the complexities of the brain that reminds us there is still a great deal more research to be done before we can understand all of the brain’s mysteries.