Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producers: Howard Sacre, Gareth Harvey
Imagine waking up one morning and not sounding like yourself, in fact sounding like someone from an entirely different country.
Liam Bartlett has just spent a few fascinating days with three otherwise normal women who have the medical world completely stumped.
One day they felt sick, the next they were jabbering away with thick foreign accents.
One can now pass for Russian. Another has developed a French lilt. The third sounds Chinese.
It's called Foreign Accent Syndrome and it's a condition that's as rare as it is strange.
Professor Nicholas Miller
Institute of Health and Society, Speech and Language Sciences
Newcastle-Tyne NE1 7RU, Great Britain
Telephone: +44 191 222 56 03
Fax: +44 191 222 65 18
Or view his website here.
What is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
Foreign Accent Syndrome is very rare condition thought to affect about 80 people around the world today. It occurs after a neurological event, such as a stroke or head injury or in some cases a very serious migraine, or a bad reaction to medication, or a combination of these.
Tiny areas of the brain linked with language, pitch and speech patterns are damaged. The event can also cause difficulty in finding words and constructing sentences, which contributes to the fact that it makes people sound foreign.
It is not actually a foreign accent.
It is a kind of speech impediment that changes the way someone speaks in such a way that the listener hears a foreign accent.
The result is often a drawing out or clipping of the vowels that mimic the accent of a particular country, even though the sufferer may have had limited exposure to that accent.
STORY - LIAM BARTLETT: On the New South Wales mid-north coast the accents are characteristically Australian. But one local’s voice stands out.
CINDY: Could we - I please have, ah, latte, in a takeaway cup, ah-
CINDY: Large one, ah, Liam?
LIAM BARTLETT: Oh, just a flat white. Cindy Hastings is fourth generation Australian, she’s never been to Europe, but you’d swear she was born there such is her thick Eastern European accent. Where do you think she is from?
WAITRESS: Oh, I would say probably, um, Croatia, or...
LIAM BARTLETT: Oh, okay.
CINDY: It’s interesting that you, you perceive it that way, ‘cause I am actually Australian.
WAITRESS: Oh, ok.
CINDY: I’m born, ah, in Sydney and, ah, Australia all my life.
WAITRESS: Oh wow.
LIAM BARTLETT: Cindy is a victim of the curious condition known as Foreign Accent Syndrome. It’s rare, its causes vary, but all those affected literally wake up one day sounding exotically different.
NICK: Battery charger.
SARAH: Battery charger.
LIAM BARTLETT: Sarah Colwill, from Plymouth in England, is a dead-set pom who now sounds like she’s from Shanghai.
SARAH: It wasn’t until I was in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, she actually say, “Are you aware of the way you are speaking?” And I say, “Oh, I sound like I have a slur.” And she say, “No, you sound like you could work in a Chinese restaurant.” Said, “You, you look could work in the local China house or something.”
LIAM BARTLETT: And another Englishwoman, Kay Russell, sounds like she’s just flown in from Paris. Kay, do the locals here in your village accept you as a French person or as an English woman?
KAY: They have asked on many occasion, um, what my accent is and where I come from. And then I’ve explained.
LIAM BARTLETT: So they’re unsure as well?
KAY: Oh, to most persons.
LIAM BARTLETT: These three women share an extraordinary illness that sounds like a joke, but has left them frustrated, ashamed, and lonely. Imagine, one day, talking like this...
KAY: I would like to welcome you to the Premier Products insight video.
PETER OVERTON: And the next, having to explain why your mother tongue now sounds French.
KAY: I just, hold on second. I, ah, started sounding total different. When I heard myself speak and the special process in my head was total different. You learn to live with it. You learn to adapt. But it’s not easy. And it never is. It’s the same every day.
LIAM BARTLETT: For Cindy Hastings, life changed profoundly just over a year ago. She was running a successful career development agency from her home near Port Macquarie. Then, one day, she suffered a series of severe epileptic seizures and was prescribed a new anti-convulsion medication. But there was a bizarre side-effect. You started noticing a change in speech.
CINDY: A change in speech, speech slowed down. I had trouble word finding so to choose the right words to say.
LIAM BARTLETT: But when the doctor said Foreign Accent Syndrome, you must have thought, what? What is that?
CINDY: It was - it was a shock to us. To hear something like that. First of all, yes, okay, I speak with a foreign accent so it makes sense, but for goodness sake, what is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
RADIO AUDIO: Employment Choice is your business, Cindy?
CINDY: Yeah, I started it back in 2004. And it was really based on wanting to do something for the community in...
LIAM BARTLETT: A local radio interview from three years ago is Cindy’s one and only memory of how she used to sound – and a life now lost.
CINDY: There really wasn’t a lot around to help them.
LIAM BARTLETT: That’s you?
CINDY: So that’s why I really started the business up in the first place.
LIAM BARTLETT: That’s very, very different, isn’t it?
CINDY: I could say what I wanted at a speed that didn’t sound like I wasn’t make sense.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well you sound like a normal, intelligent Australian woman.
CINDY: I do. It’s very distressing to hear that, because from what we’ve been told is that it’s very unlikely I ever return to that. It gets to me every time.
LIAM BARTLETT: It really makes you emotional.
CINDY: It does. I’ll never do it again.
LIAM BARTLETT: What’s it been like, living through all this? The impact has been far greater than you might expect for Cindy and her husband David. She can no longer run her business and some long-term friendships have suffered.
DAVID: You could see, just the wonder in their faces of, is this the same lady? Has David got a new girlfriend, perhaps? Or - they just try and make their own mind up on the situation to, um...
LIAM BARTLETT: Did they think you were taking the mickey out of them?
DAVID: They often do, I think, at the beginning. But when you tell them it’s a medical condition, it’s a result of wrong medication and a brain condition, they tend to take that serious.
CINDY: I still have the same intelligence, that the brain still is working on, in the head, still going. It just, um - it just - it just doesn’t connect with this bit. This bit seems to have mind of its own sometimes.
LIAM BARTLETT: What’s been the worst part of all this?
CINDY: Um, I think the worst part was me, how it affect me. And nobody really understands what it’s like to - to go from being accepted in your local area, you know, and to all of a sudden everybody wants to treat you like you’re deaf or you’re brain damaged or you’re foreign.
NICK: It’s lovely to see you again dear. Do you want to take a seat just here?
LIAM BARTLETT: It’s two years since Sarah Colwill joined this rare Foreign Accent Syndrome club, thought to number only 80 around the world.
NICK: Let’s try some sounds. Can you say for me, pee pee pee pee pee pee pee. Over and over again, as fast as you can.
SARAH: Pee, pee, pee, pee, pee, pee, pee, pee, pee...
LIAM BARTLETT: Sarah was an I.T. specialist until a severe migraine, bordering on a stroke, brought the syndrome on.
NICK: Can you try dee do, dee do, dee do?
SARAH: Dee do, dee do, dee do, dee do.
NICK: Ok, let’s try reading.
LIAM BARTLETT: Dr Nick Miller, from England’s Newcastle University, says his patients don’t actually speak with foreign accents - it just sounds that way.
SARAH: You wish to know all about my grandfather.
NICK: The listener hears a foreign accent. So because, ah, for instance, you might add ‘a’ to everything – “I want a cup of a tea a please.” And couple that with, um, changes to the - to the rhythm in your speech, it might bring out – “Oh, that sounds Italian to me.” Or you can’t pronounce the word ah or the sound ‘w’ anymore, so instead of water you say “vater” or “vas.” “The vater vas on – on - in the glass.” Or something like that. And so - “Oh, um, sounds a bit - bit German to me.”
LIAM BARTLETT: You’re saying these people have a speech disorder which happens to sound, in the ear of the listener, like a foreign accent.
NICK: Yeah, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there.
LIAM BARTLETT: Have all your friends and family stuck by you?
SARAH: Friends no, family yeah, yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: Why have you lost friends?
SARAH: I think, particularly in the early days, they didn’t like to see what I’d become because, ah, maybe it was too upsetting for them, I don’t know. I - they’re not around for me to ask, you know, but...
LIAM BARTLETT: So they think you are different, just from your voice?
SARAH: Yeah. Yeah, pretty much. I make a grammatical error in speech, they will say, “Oh, you said this wrong.”
LIAM BARTLETT: Sarah’s husband Patrick has stuck by her, but he can see why people might be put off, thinking she’s arrogant or rude.
PATRICK: She used to say to me, like, “You do, you do.” She couldn’t say, “Can you – can you make me a cup of coffee, please?”
SARAH: I had to learn to say, “Can you do?”
PATRICK: She’d say, “You coffee.”
LIAM BARTLETT: Ah, so it sounded like a rude order?
PATRICK: Yeah, all the time.
LIAM BARTLETT: Here, do you want me to hold this for you? In her little village in Gloustershire, English-born Kay Russell sounds like she belongs in Provence. L’Orange?
KAY: L’Orange. L’Orange.
LIAM BARTLETT: Sorry, that’s much - you do a much better accent than I do. For Kay, Foreign Accent Syndrome was also caused by a migraine. But its onset was especially frightening for her – and downright weird. She recorded herself in those inarticulate first few days.
KAY: Da da da da da da da. It’s not funny! It’s, it’s -
LIAM BARTLETT: I know, I’m not laughing. I’m sorry.
KAY: No, it’s not funny.
LIAM BARTLETT: I’m sorry. Very strange.
KAY: Would you like me to stop this now?
LIAM BARTLETT: Yeah, I think we’ve got the idea. Yep. Kay was once a sales rep for a British paint company and made a TV ad using her married name.
KAY: Hello, my name is Kay Lawrence, and I would like to welcome you to the Premier Products insight video, highlighting one of our selector products that can be found...
LIAM BARTLETT: It’s a huge difference, isn’t it? You can’t blame people though, can you, for saying, “Kay, you’ve been watching too many Inspector Clouseau movies.”
KAY: If only that were true, huh? If you’ve been through this, or go through this, you know jolly well there’s no way of faking it, it’s impossible.
LIAM BARTLETT: But sometimes you seem to actually say a word in French. You just did. Impossible.
KAY: I say the word in the way that I can speak it from my brain, through the speech process, movement of jaw, intonation, tongue movement, etcetera. If that sound French to you, then that sound French to you.
NICK: I can see the - the despair on the faces, a lot of them, that something’s happened to me and it’s caused me to do this. I’m, I’m not putting this on, it’s not something I’m doing to get attention, it’s something has happened to me. Please tell me what’s happened to me, why - why has this happened?
CINDY: There we go. Hello, how are you?
SARAH: I’m good, thank you.
CINDY: It’s – I’ve been – it’s so lovely to, to speak to you.
LIAM BARTLETT: Being a new sufferer, and the only one in Australia, it’s good for Cindy to know that she’s not on her own.
SARAH: I don’t know what it’s like for you, but you - you get spoken to like you are stupid, or - you know. People they really slow their speech to speak. So you have to - you have a lot to get used to - other people, how they treat you.
CINDY: So many times, if I had money for every time someone said to me, “Where you’re born?” - I’d be millionaire by now. It’s incredible.
LIAM BARTLETT: It’s taken more than a year for Cindy to come to terms with her new life – a life that seems to be changed forever. Because doctors tell Cindy her familiar Australian accent, and the woman she once was, almost certainly won’t come back.
CINDY: I would love to - to still be able to do the things that I loved doing in my professional life.
LIAM BARTLETT: You don’t think you’ll ever get back there?
CINDY: Not - not at that level, no.
LIAM BARTLETT: So that, to you, is really like losing a part of you?
CINDY: It is a big chunk of me gone, yes.
LIAM BARTLETT: It’s almost an entirely different person, isn’t it?
CINDY: Hmm, it is, but I still the same person on the inside. I still there. I just sound a bit different, you know.