What would you think if you woke up one day and suddenly your usual speech patterns were replaced by a seemingly foreign accent? Suddenly, the ‘you’ that everyone knows and loves has disappeared! How much of your identity would you feel was compromised? For me, the worst part would be not having the ability to choose which accent to adopt and not knowing how to turn it on and off at will. (At the Accent Reduction Institute, we call this ‘code switching’ and it’s part of our accent neutralization training program.)
Although the scenario described above may seem like something from a children’s novel, for sufferers of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) it’s an unpleasant reality. The syndrome usually occurs after a brain injury, trauma, or stroke, and it’s suggested that the best diagnostic team for the rare disorder includes a neurologist, radiologist, neuropsychologist, clinical psychologist, and speech-language pathologist. That’s quite a team for a disorder that impacts a person’s speech. Perhaps this speaks (no pun intended) to the complexity of the language learning process.
So what’s the big deal about a new speech pattern or accent? I think the core of the issue is that personal identity, how we portray ourselves to others, and how others see us, includes our language style. And even if FAS doesn’t make us feel different about ourselves, it may impact the way others perceive us. Professor Nick Miller states, “The notion that sufferers speak in a foreign language is something that is in the ear of the listener rather than the mouth of the speaker.” Like everything else in life, it’s all about choice. If I could choose which accent to use and when, and therefore how to impact my ability to communicate with others…Bingo! I’d be the first one to sign up!