Foreign Language Syndrome, Is it Real or a Hoax?
The adaptability of our human bodies is often quite amazing. The brain in particular, is a case in point. It is the most complex organ we have and controls everything we do, both consciously and unconsciously. In the not too distant past, an injury to the brain was thought to result in irreversible damage to its overall functions, but this assumption is no longer perceived as accurate.
Causes of Foreign Language Syndrome
It seems that if one area of the brain is damaged, then another part of the brain assumes responsibility for its former functions. For example, people suffering strokes may lose the use of a hand or leg for a short time as the brain readjusts itself. Sometimes the actual process of brain "rewiring" after an accident or illness can become confused, resulting in unusual behavior patterns within patients.
The phenomenon known as foreign language syndrome falls clearly within that bracket. Foreign language syndrome occurs after a serious accident or injury to the brain which renders victims unconscious. When the patients come around they find themselves talking in completely different languages that they weren't able to speak prior to the incident. This may continue for only a temporary period; alternatively some patients may find themselves speaking this completely new language for a prolonged period of time.
Foreign Accent Syndrome
Another, more common, aspect of this phenomenon is foreign accent syndrome, where patients awaken after a brain trauma to find themselves speaking in an accent that is completely alien to their normal speech patterns.
Medical professionals believe that foreign accent syndrome is the result of miniscule areas of the brain relating to language, pitch and speech patterns suffering temporary damage. Typically this occurs after a stroke or other brain injury, such as a brain hemorrhage. The cerebellum (which controls motor movement co-ordination and balance) and other parts of the brain responsible for linguistic ability are often affected. This particular type of brain damage affects both the rhythm and intonation of our speech patterns. As a result sufferers begin to speak in a different accent or a completely different language altogether.
Cases of Foreign Language Syndrome
Incidences of foreign language syndrome occur infrequently around the world, yet when they do they attract significant attention due to their uniqueness. The earliest reported occurrences date back to the 1940s.
In April 2012, a 17-year-old Malaysian student involved in a motorbike accident emerged from unconsciousness speaking four new languages: Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian. In what was considered to be an extreme form of this syndrome, the language changed on a daily basis, lasting for several hours at a time.
In a bizarre twist on the theme of foreign language syndrome, a Croatian girl woke up from a coma speaking fluent German. As this was her second language, it was not a particular surprise. What was intriguing was the fact that she was no longer able to speak Croatian, which was her first language. Her ability to speak her native language had somehow been inhibited through her accident.
In a third example, a Czech speedway driver who had just begun learning to speak English came to after a motorbike crash speaking fluent English to the astonishment of his friends, especially as there was no trace of an accent. Later he could speak to an English reporter only through an interpreter.
Other examples specifically related to foreign accent syndrome include a British woman who began speaking with a French accent after a stroke. More unusually, an American woman who was put under an anesthetic for dental treatment woke up speaking with a curious combination of English, Irish and other European accents.
Causes of Foreign Accent Syndrome
Foreign accent syndrome is normally caused by damage to the left side of the brain where language is processed, although two recorded cases were known to have resulted from stroke damage to the right side. This area is known to affect what is referred to as "speech prosody," – the emphasis that a speaker places on particular syllables. Segmenting, – the modification of vowels and consonants, – may also be affected, giving sufferers the sometimes misleading effect of speaking in a foreign language.
Treatment for foreign accent syndrome is normally a combination of speech and language therapy, particularly after a stroke, in conjunction with neurologic therapy. While the syndrome may sometimes disappear within a few months, it can often take several years and cause distress to the sufferer. In one of the most extreme cases, a Norwegian women injured by shrapnel during World War II began speaking with a German accent. She was subsequently ostracized by her local community.
Foreign language syndrome cases are rare and often, perhaps understandably, treated with a degree of skepticism. While it may often be viewed as a hoax, foreign accent syndrome may actually be an early indication of a serious condition such as multiple sclerosis.
Neither foreign language syndrome nor foreign accent syndrome should simply be disregarded as either attention seeking or an amusing distraction. In addition to MS they are often linked to serious brain conditions which affect our ability to speak, such as aphasia which inhibits our ability to both understand and speak language. In other cases foreign accent syndrome has also been linked to speech apraxia, a disorder which impedes our ability to form sounds or words. To avoid any doubt, it is recommended that all cases of foreign accent syndrome be treated on an individual basis by medical professionals.