The Foreign Accent Syndrome (2)

An Englishman who woke up speaking with an Irish accent after an operation, a French patient who woke up speaking fluent English… this is called “Foreign Accent Syndrome”. A few days ago, a Croatian teenager caused a stir by speaking German when she came out of her coma. The young girl had only just started studying this language, with the plan to learn it quickly, in particular by watching German television. After a 24-hour coma, she woke up speaking German. Doctors and scientists are seeking a rational explanation for this, but are still only at the hypothetical stage: there is apparently a subconscious learning ability that enables the brain to register a lot more information than we think, and a trauma, by damaging the zone controlling our native language, could make another zone take over, corresponding to a language learnt.

Of course, it’s easy to envy patients who wake up speaking another language fluently, but foreign accent syndrome is not easy to deal with on a day-to-day basis. An English woman suffering from chronic migraines and learning Chinese found, after treatment, that she had a Chinese accent that she can’t get rid of even when she speaks English. Her voice has become higher, her friends don’t recognise her on the telephone, and she’s desperately trying to get her normal voice back, with the help of a speech therapist.

As for Mickey Rourke, despite his numerous alcoholic comas, he was not lucky enough to wake up with a Russian accent, so he had to use a more traditional method in order to put himself in the shoes of Ivan Vanko, the baddy in Iron Man 2. He went to Russia and took a course for 3 months, with 3 hours of Russian each day. The time spent will be useful to him after the film, as he’s been seen recently in the company of a certain Anastassija Makarenko, of Russian origin.

Good luck if you’re learning a new language, and avoid any violent methods!

4 Comments on “The Foreign Accent Syndrome (2)”

  1. This is absolutely fascinating! This takes the phrase ‘lets sleep on it’ to a whole new level and it even makes sense that comas can induce these new languages. It would be interesting to see if Mickey Rouke id one day wake up speaking Russian. There is a lot language words and accents you pick up when living in another country – even if its for a short time. Also, Rourke’s performance in Iron Man 2 was pretty convincing – especially when trying to get Sam Rockwell to rescue his bird from Russia. Classic!

  2. I definitely understand the “accent syndrome”, I was spent a whole week in an international space competition, and out teammates were from India, and almost all of our team by the end of the competition had an Indian accent. Maybe it has something to do with our subconscious or some other part of our brain. And don’t most actors utilize those kinds of techniques when going for a new role?

  3. Very interesting article! I still occasionally have dreams in which I am conversing in languages studied long ago and now pretty much forgotten while I am awake. The information in still in my brain; I just have to find a way to transfer it back to conscious working memory.

    I find myself picking up accents very easily, to the point where people sometimes think I am mimicking them. I’m not; it just happens. The worst situation I was ever in related to this was a phone call I received while working for a government agency. I stuttered terribly as a child, and sometimes I was barely able to speak. Sometimes, especially when I am under considerable stress, this speech, with its blocks and sound repetition, will return, though to a lesser degree, fortunately. This particular phone call came from a young man who also stuttered, and I picked up on that and began stuttering again myself. He naturally thought I was mocking him. Though I apologized profusely and briefly explained my past speech difficulties, he simply would not believe I was just making fun of him. He hung up in frustration, and I felt horrible, but I could no more keep from stuttering during that call than could he.

    Now if I could just converse briefly with a speaker of one the languages I studied so long ago, perhaps I would suddenly become very fluent in that language! (wishful thinking)

  4. I too find Foreign Accent Syndrome really interesting. It is one of those “weird” conditions that people think only happens to weird kind of people when in fact they only find it weird because it is not very well known.

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