Foreign Accent Syndrome.

Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts write for the MIT Press Reader about a phenomenon that turns out to be not as spooky as the lede makes it seem:

On September 6, 1941, the German-occupied city of Oslo was attacked by the British Royal Air Force. The frightened citizens caught in the open frantically sought refuge from the falling bombs. One of the casualties of the air raid was a 30-year-old woman named Astrid, who was hit by shrapnel as she ran toward a shelter. She was seriously wounded on the left side of her head. Hospital staff feared she would not survive. After a few days, however, she regained consciousness and was found to have paralysis on the right side of her body. She was also unable to speak.

Over time her paralysis receded, and she gradually recovered her ability to talk. Her speech, however, had changed, and people who heard her detected a pronounced German-like accent. This was a serious problem in Norway, where the military occupation had created intense antipathy toward anything German, and her speech caused shopkeepers to refuse to assist her. Clearly she had no desire to speak as she did. Even more mysteriously, she had never lived outside Norway, nor had she interacted with foreigners.

Two years after her injury, Astrid’s strange case came to the attention of Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn. He was a professor of neurology at the University of Oslo and had a particular interest in language disorders. He was also struck by Astrid’s distinctly foreign accent and initially thought that she must be German or French.

Astrid’s case is not unique: An occurrence of what is now called foreign accent syndrome (FAS) was described as early as 1907 by Pierre Marie in France, where a Parisian had acquired an “Alsatian” accent. Over the next century, physicians and language researchers reported dozens of similar cases. As the case studies piled up in the medical journals, scholars struggled to understand what was going on. […]

A shared element in many FAS cases involves injury to specific areas of the left hemisphere of the brain. In most individuals, language functions are localized in this hemisphere, which controls the right side of the body (this is why most individuals write with their right hand). Brain injury is rarely selective, and in two-thirds of the FAS cases that have been studied, such individuals have some other language deficit, such as aphasia or apraxia (a motor planning problem).

What is it that makes individuals suffering from FAS sound like foreign speakers of their native language? A common element is that the prosody of their language production has changed in some way. Prosody refers to the rhythm, pitch, and intonation of a language as it is spoken. In a language like English, flat intonation is used for statements of fact (“I owe you twenty dollars”), whereas questions are accompanied by rising intonation (“I owe you twenty dollars?”). Languages differ in their prosodic contours, and so any disruption of normal rhythm and flow might be perceived as non-native or foreign-sounding. […]

When all these features are combined, it becomes easier to understand how other Norwegians might have perceived Astrid’s speech as foreign sounding. The relatively subtle prosodic and grammatical errors that she made would be consistent with someone who had learned Norwegian as a second language. Recall that Monrad-Krohn initially thought that Astrid might be a native speaker of German or French. This probably reflects the fact that the nonnative speakers of Norwegian whom he and others encountered hailed from nearby, populous European countries — like Germany and France.

Other examples are given at the link (including singer George Michael). Thanks, Martin!


  1. I remember Mother starting to talk funny—the pitch going up unexpectedly, for example—while she could still speak at all.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    The screwing up of prosody as an explanation for the supposed foreign accent seems quite plausible. It would be interesting to see if the “foreign accent syndrome” is at all common in languages with very different normal prosodic patterns, like Japanese. I wonder if there are Mandarin speakers who lose control of tone but not segmental word structure? (MInd you, that would probably make you sound not so much foreign as altogether incomprehensible.)

  3. I doubt it, because plenty of foreigners have little or no control of tone and manage to be mostly understood. Redundancy is a beautiful thing (and it is folly to try to design languages that don’t have any).

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Turning this around, it’s interesting that a “foreign accent” often boils down to a failure, specifically, to acquire the prosodic system of the target language properly. This seems to be pretty common with people who in other respects have admirable command of the L2. Language teachers seem to hope, as often as not, that learners will simply acquire these things by osmosis without any formal instruction, and textbooks are often vague to the point of hopelessness on these issues.

    We had some fun with Teach Yourself Swahili on this a while back, though the author deserves considerable credit for at least realising that there was a problem there.

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    There is a certain allophony and natural variation in prosodic structure. For example someone who says ‘I don’t know HOW you put up with him” is emphatic. Someone who says “I don’t know HOW you put up with him. I would have REALLY left him by now. Who knows WHAT he will do next?” is an actor, an Olympic-level complainer or has an accent from L—, as 18th century novelists write. Someone who says “I don’t know how you PUT up with him” is an L2 speaker (although maybe an Indian or South African could say this).

  6. Although I never learned to speak French or German particularly well, I generally had a pretty good accent. This sometimes caused trouble, because people would think I was much more competent than I actually was. To me, acquiring a reasonable facsimile of how native speakers sound was a matter of mimicry — similar to being able to do plausible Australian or Scottish or other variants of English. At school, we listened to tapes and also had a series of young French and German college students who would help us with conversational practice. So there was a genuine effort to get us to sound right, as part of our language instruction.

    Oddly, I’m not as good at mimicry as I used to be. Whether that’s due to age or lack of practice or interest I couldn’t say.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    A Dutch friend of mine is quite often taken for a native English speaker From Somewhere Else, which feels like a possibly related phenomenon.

  8. From a certain perspective to be taken as a native speaker “From Somewhere Else” could be seen as ideal, especially when there isn’t a clear standard accent to learn, unless one particularly wants to have a specific accent.

  9. John Cowan says

    Someone who says “I don’t know HOW you put up with him. I would have REALLY left him by now. Who knows WHAT he will do next?” is an actor, an Olympic-level complainer or has an accent from L—, as 18th century novelists write.

    This Plastic New Yorker often hears prosody like that among L1 speakers, and not just in a single accent either. We Neo-Avalonians are often Olympic-level complainers, presumably due to the merger of (at least) Jewish, Italian, and African American verbal traditions. I would rearrange things and add even more sentential stresses and other oomph, though: “I don’t know HOW you put UP with him! I would REALLY have LEFT him by now. WHO KNOWS WHAT he’ll do next???” Closely related is my wife ordering coffee: “Coffee very light with half [milk] and half [cream], about one-third half and half, and two Equals [aspartame packets] on the side, please.” No word of that can be left out without a heavy risk of getting the Wrong Thing.

  10. I’ve always wanted to order a double cap, half caff half decaf, half nonfat half half-and-half. I’ve never dared. I’m not ready to die yet.

  11. David Marjanović says



  12. Nice illustration!

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    You are making my point even better. The possible L1 prosody range is too large to cover in lessons. If the teacher is a native speaker, then he/she can cover his/her own prosody and give some rules about what is verboten, i.e., say “put UP” but not “PUT up”. Although there is “PUT-up job”.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    At this point I would mention the Trotsky telegram, but there’s no need, as everyone knows it already.

  15. David Marjanović says

    but not “PUT up”

    What about contrastive stress, as in “put up or shut up”?

  16. This just reminded me of one of my all-time favorite sight gags. On Futurama,* when they showed cartons of what would normally be expected to be milk or cream or half-and-half, it was usually third & third & third. (The other third was naturally never explained.)

    * Futurama was generally much funnier with its one-off gags (like this one) than in the actual plot-related humor.

  17. PlasticPaddy says

    I think before the 1940’s, this was put UP or shut UP. Compare go HIGH or go HOME. I blame Clark Gable. The rot started when he said “Frankly, my dear, I don’t GIVE a damn.”

  18. Many years ago I met an old lady who had been brought up in Russia as a child and teenager but married an Englishman during WW2 and lived in the UK, speaking only English. After having a stroke in her eighties, she could no longer speak English and spoke only Russian. I don’t think this is the same syndrome, but it might be the same part of the brain affected.

  19. I think before the 1940’s, this was put UP or shut UP. Compare go HIGH or go HOME.

    No, the point is to emphasize the contrasting elements, which are put/shut in the first case and high/home in the second. I’m quite sure no native speaker ever said “put UP or shut UP.”

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    I see what you are saying, but where both parts are contrastive, the verb is not stressed, i.e., stay IN or go OUT, not STAY in or GO out. So there is something unusual about stressing the verb.

  21. Those are different constructions and thus different situations.

  22. David Marjanović says

    So there is something unusual about stressing the verb.

    I don’t think so. “Stay in or go out” can be reduced to “in or out”, and the verbs are just there to clarify that you don’t mean “come in or go out”; “put up or shut up” can’t be reduced to “put or shut”…

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    It can be reduced also to “stay or go”, but those words are not stressed. Think of a cat standing in the open doorway on a cold, wet or windy morning (the cat is the one spoken to, not the speaker????). I think hat’s “different situations ” is the answer. Mostly it is come OUT, give OVER, etc. PUT up or SHUT up is the equivalent of a physical blow. But you would not hear someone say GIVE up or SHUT up. Would you ever bugger OFF could be jovial but would you ever BUGGER off is the physical blow.

  24. There is, of course, a canonical intonation of which words to stress in the stay versus go dichotomy

Speak Your Mind