Ja, ja, ich spreche sehr gut Französisch…
So, let us envisage the following scenario: you wake up one morning speaking perfect Chinese. Ok, ‘What is so unusual about this?’ you ask. It is spoken by several billion people worldwide and it’s also an official language of the United Nations, so nothing out of the ordinary so far. Well, the thing is, you’re not Chinese. You don’t have any Chinese relatives or ancestry and you’ve never even been to China. If you were to wake up with a milder version of the above symptoms (e.g. suddenly speaking with an unexplained accent), chances are you might be suffering from a severe case of Foreign Accent Syndrome – a rare and very interesting medical condition.
Even though the aforementioned example is a bit far-fetched, Foreign Accent Syndrome is a recognised and documented disease. It can occur as a side effect of serious brain injury, such as stroke or head trauma, which manifests itself as a distorted pronunciation of words or as an inability to coordinate your speech. That is to say, it’s nothing as radical as learning to speak a completely different language within hours; it’s simply the pronunciation of your native language with an accent that may be perceived as foreign by listeners. However, the reverse can also happen: there is a distinct possibility that the affected person may genuinely speak a foreign language with his/her own accent.
The first ever case of Foreign Accent Syndrome was described in 1907, by French neurologist Pierre Marie and another very early occurrence was reported by a Czech bulletin in 1919. The recorded occurrences are few and far between, making the condition even more puzzling; between 1941 and 2009, there have only been sixty documented cases. Only one of these patients was apparently endowed with the ability to speak a different language after waking from a 24-hour coma – in 2010, a Croatian teenager, who was just beginning to learn German in school, was unable to express herself in his native language after suffering head trauma, but could communicate perfectly in German.
Other significant cases include that of Linda Walker, a 60-year-old woman from Newcastle, who in 2006, following a stroke, witnessed a transformation of her Geordie accent into one that was described as Jamaican, French and even Slovakian by listeners. She received the media’s undivided attention, being asked by BBC news to talk about her ordeals. In 2010, Kay Russell, from Gloucestershire, woke up with a French accent after going for a lie down to ease a severe migraine. On account of the accent, she had to give up her job as a sales executive, mostly due to the fact that her confidence was shattered by the event and she started experiencing identity issues.
Maybe many of us have indeed contemplated the wicked possibility of learning complex foreign languages on the spot. However, would you give up your native language for another one? Here’s an engaging social experiment – try practicing a ‘no-English day’. Simply walk up to your friends one morning and address them in whatever other language you may know or perhaps resort to interpretative dancing if foreign dialects are not your forte. Note their expressions. Puzzled? Amazed? Confused? No matter what their reaction may be, one thing is clear, our intricate brain never ceases to supply us with food for thought.