Julie Matthias’s family have a game they sometimes like to play after she comes home, disappointed, from another doctor’s appointment. During dinner, they pick a foreign accent, and challenge each other to speak in the strange voice.
The playful jokes help to distract from the distress of a condition that her doctors have struggled to treat. Despite having lived in the UK her whole life, Matthias suddenly found that she no longer speaks with an English accent – sounding French or Chinese instead. “Four years ago this Easter – that was the last time I heard my own voice,” she tells me on the phone.
Matthias is one of a handful of people in the UK with foreign accent syndrome. Although their speech is completely fluent, their voices have somehow taken on odd characteristics that make them sound as if they grew up in another country.
The causes are complicated, and sometimes puzzling to scientists. Matthias thinks her experience can be pinned down to a car accident that was followed by blinding migraines, often accompanied by debilitating body pain. “It feels like your brain is going to explode,” says Matthias. “Your joints are so tender, so painful, you feel you can’t breathe, you can’t get the air in… I’d rather have more babies than go through that pain again.”
Hear Julie Matthias’s accent in an interview with BBC News: Here
Then, a few months after these painful episodes started, something even stranger happened. Her voice started shifting accent. The change soon caught the attention of people in her beauty salon. “Clients talked to me as if I didn’t understand English.”
It’s not clear exactly why the car accident caused that shift. Despite ongoing hospital visits, no neurologist has yet been able to pin down a definite cause of her migraines or her strange accent. It is especially hurtful, she says, when people assume the lack of diagnosis means her condition is imaginary, or they fail to see the impact of the disorder. “People just take it as a joke condition. They focus on the fact that we speak with a [funny] accent.”
It is no laughing matter. “Think: you go to sleep, wake up and no longer sound to you like the person you really are –and there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Sheila Blumstein at Brown University, Rhode Island. “That has a very profound effect on the patients.” Fortunately, researchers like Blumstein are now coming to terms with both the causes and strange consequences of this puzzling disorder.
Initially, even the nature of the altered voice was a mystery. Were the people speaking with genuinely foreign accents – or were we being fooled by some other change? Blumstein’s early work showed that the vowel sounds do indeed change a little, but more often it’s down to differences in the underlying music of the voice. “When we speak, we have a speech melody and rhythm – and it’s here they have changes,” says Blumstein.
The voice’s intonation and stress – including the subtle ways we embellish a sentence and emphasise our point – is central to this. In 2012, Anja Kuschmann at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow found subtle differences in the way people with foreign accent syndrome highlight different words. “They still use the same rising and falling tones as healthy speakers – but they use a lot more of them. Instead of highlighting some of the words, they highlighted all of them.”
Intonation is one of the hardest aspects of an accent to master – many foreigners do indeed have abnormal voice rhythms compared to native speakers. Even so, the perception of the specific accent is somewhat subjective; some may think a subject with foreign accent syndrome sounds Russian; another, German. Indeed, what you hear in their voice probably depends on your own expectations. “It’s a fiction created by the listener,” says Johan Verhoeven at City University London.
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