What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?

Immigrants often change language because of their own dialects and changes in pronunciation. Qvasimodo art/Shutterstock

When Leanne Rowe began her arduous recovery after a car crash that left her jaw and back broken, little could the Australian woman have predicted one of the most vexing problems to come from the accident.

In 2013, she has been speaking with what sounds like a French accent.

"Slowly, as my jaw started to heal, they said that I was slurring my words because I was on very powerful tablets," she told ABC.

Family doctor Robert Newton believes Rowe has the very rare Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a speech disorder for which there have only been around 100 cases ever reported.

FAS leaves the speaker with a perceived foreign accent. Most often caused by stroke or traumatic brain injury, it has also been reported in cases that involve multiple sclerosis, conversion disorder and psychological disorders.

NPR reports that the most famous case was a Norwegian woman who was hit by shrapnel in World War II; she developed a German accent and was ostracized as a result.

Another case involves a woman in Arizona who's had three different accents over the years. In 2018, Michelle Myers told ABC 15 when she would go to sleep with blinding headaches she would wake up with a different accent. The first time she woke up with an Irish accent, then the second time an Australian accent. However, those accents only temporarily lasted. Then two years ago, she developed a British accent and it stuck.

Other cases include a British woman who developed a Chinese accent following a migraine, and another British woman who had a stroke and now sounds French. Other reported cases include accent changes from Japanese to Korean, British English to French, American-English to British English, and Spanish to Hungarian.

According to Karen Croot, a FAS researcher from the University of Sydney, it all boils down to coincidence. "It's just an accident of chance that happens to that person that what happens to their speech happens to overlap with the features of a known accent," she says.

Rowe says she has suffered from anxiety and depression since the accident, and has become a recluse, yet she is coming to terms with what will more than likely be a life-long condition.

"It makes me so angry because I am Australian," she said.