The Phenomenon of the Foreign Accent Syndrome

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2017

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Foreign Accent Syndrome

3. Characteristics of a Foreign Accent

4. Three Cases and Revealed Characteristics of FAS
4.1 Blumstein et al. 1987
4.2 Kurowski et al. 1996
4.3 Dankovicová et al. 2001

5. Discussion


1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to introduce the reader to the Phenomenon of the Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) and to work out the similarities and differences between the syndrome and a real foreign accent. For this, various case studies will be introduced and their results will be drawn together in order to list up the main facts and characteristics of the foreign accent syndrome. Following, a reflection about the probable causes of the syndrome will be done. There has not been a lot of research about the foreign accent syndrome and only little is known about the real pathologic cause of FAS. The FAS is to separate from other disorders such as apraxia (and aphasia), despite the fact that they share a lot of common features and the FAS is considered to be a subtype of the AoS. (see Mariën, et al., 2009: 3) Although there is no detailed knowledge about the cause of foreign accent syndrome, the theories about its pathologic reasons will be discussed as well. Although there are several known kinds of the foreign accent syndrome, this paper will focus on the ones following a stroke or other lesions affecting the human brain.

On the following pages the characteristics of a real foreign accent will be compared to the ones of the foreign accent syndrome with the aim to find out which factors lead to the perception of the individuals´ speech as foreign and to reveal the actual differences. In final the results will be discussed.

2. The Foreign Accent Syndrome

The foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is a “rare form of speech disorder” (Blumstein et al.,1987: 216), a motor speech disorder which leads to the affected person´s speech sounding foreign to speakers of the same language community. The syndrome usually occurs after the patients suffered from a stroke, but a few cases were registered following a trauma (see Kurowski et. al, 1996: 2). The author acknowledges that there are also other possible causes (e.g. psychogenic) of FAS, but they will not be discussed any further in this paper as this would not serve the aim of the paper itself. In almost all of the documented cases the damaged area of the brain after the stroke was the left hemisphere (see Kurowski et al., 1996: 2). Mostly, FAS occurred after “lesions in the perisylvian speech regions” (Marien et al., 2008: 3) including the “prerolandic motor cortex […], frontal motor association cortex […] or striatum” (Dankovicova et al., 2000: 197). To understand the issue better, the above mentioned areas of the brain will shortly be explained. The perisylvian areas are located between Broca´s and Wernicke´s area and serve as a connection between both areas (see Crosson et al., 2000: 21). Furthermore, they are referred to as “perisylvanian language areas” (Budisavljevic et al., 2005: 15) which also shows their importance in the production of speech. The (pre)rolandic cortex is close to Broca´s area and responsible for motoric and sensory functions (see Brinkley et al., 1999: 2). Broca´s area is, among other areas, responsible for language (see Brinkley et al., 1999: 2), i.e. for language and speech planning and the sequence of sounds, and when damaged the language production can get impaired (see Price et al., 1996: 119). Wernicke´s area is known to “represent phonetic sequences (sounds). […] those we generate ourselves[…]” (Rodriguez, 2017). This means that it is responsible for acoustic processes and for comprehension. Therefore, if any lesions occur in those three significantly important areas it can lead to problems in the speech as it is the case in the FAS. There are other language impairments known to result from lesions in those areas as for example Broca´s aphasia. (see Dankovicová et al., 2001: 196) At this point it is important to tell FAS from aphasia and other motor speech impairments. The FAS shows only features occurring in “natural languages” (Kurowski et al., 1996: 242) while aphasia and other impairments also have other characteristics not occurring in any language. This is also the most probable reason why the speech of FAS patients is not perceived as impaired.

3. Characteristics of a Foreign Accent

With respect to the characteristics of a foreign accent it is important to firstly define the term foreign accent itself, in order to understand what leads to the misperception in the case of FAS. This paper will focus on foreign accents of English, but it is certainly possible to transfer this to other languages.

A foreign accent is the deviation in the speech production of a (non-native) speaker from the norm of a certain language. This deviation is perceived as unusual by native speakers. Usually the L2 speaker shows features of his native language in the L2 speech. (Own definition)

In conclusion the characteristics of a foreign accent depend on the speaker’s personal history: his origin, his native language, languages he had acquired before, family, friends etc..

Although foreign accent does not seem to have main characteristics, it is certain that there are parts of the speech which are most affected. One of them is the pronunciation. Depending on his L1 every learner of the English language has his own problems in the production of vowels and consonants. The reason for this is that every language has an own phonetic inventory which might be similar to another language but is usually not exactly the same. The L2 learner will try an assimilation to the sounds of the L2, in this case English, using the phonetic inventory of L1. This process of assimilation can even lead to the production of sounds which are not usual in neither of the two languages. (see Flege, 1980: 117-134) According to Fledge (1980), it can also influence the vowel duration and final or initial stops as the non-native speaker tries to transfer the patterns of his own language to the L2.

Another feature which contributes to the perception of speech as foreign is prosody. (see Boula de Mareüil, Vieru-Dimulescu, 2006: 265) It was even shown, that prosody, especially intonation (Jilka, 2000, 8), is an important factor to distinguish between foreign accents as prosody is very likely to be transferred from L1 to L2. (see Jilka, 2000: 161, 175) As prosody consists out of speech rhythm and intonation which are very hard to change in every day speech, it is understandable that these concepts are often adapted from L1. Jilka, however, also found out that prosodic features are less relevant for the perception of a foreign accent than segmental features. (see Jilka, 2000: 175) Apart from that grammatical and lexical issues also contribute to speech sounding foreign.

4. Three Cases and Revealed Characteristics of FAS

The foreign accent syndrome was first found in 1907 by Pierre Marie, a French neurologist. Her patient suffered from the syndrome following a left hemisphere stroke. Since then there were more than 60 cases of a foreign accent – like speech reported and analyzed. In this paper three cases of English native speakers will be discussed.

4.1 Blumstein et al. 1987

One of those cases is a 62 years old woman from Boston who had a left hemisphere stroke followed by a change in her speech which sounded foreign to listeners. Her speech was analyzed by Blumstein et al. in 1987. “Her articulation seemed only mildly abnormal, whereas melody line was very abnormal […]. Language was generally fluent.” (Blumstein et al. 1987: 220) Apart from that the findings in writing, repetition and recitation, reading and singing were normal. The speech analysis revealed that listeners can´t decide which accent the patient had and gave several indications about probable causes of this perception. Using some test words there was an acoustic analysis being conducted to figure out the differences between the patient´s production of stop consonants and the one of native speakers of English. The first analysis was done watching the Voice-Onset Time (VOT). Generally the patient had pretty normal VOT productions, but they found her prevoicing - “particularly for labial and alveolar stops” (Blumstein et al. 1987: 224) - to be very long for native speakers of English. However, the place of articulation was found to be normal. The manner of articulation, in particular the realization of flaps vs. full stops was analyzed by measuring the duration. The patient´s utterances showed that she is rather using full stops instead of flaps for [t d]. The acoustic analysis of vowels revealed that her vowel production was average apart from monosyllabic words where the patient was found to produce another vowel after “the final stop [d]” (Blumstein et al., 1987: 229). This causes a change in the syllable structure as well as the speech rhythm.

Another factor which was found to be abnormal in the patient´s speech is the prosody. Prosody includes rhythm as well as melody of speech. It was tested analyzing the fundamental frequency patterns of spontaneous speech, read sentences and repeated sentences. The analysis of the spontaneous speech showed that the “terminal segment” (Blumstein et al. 1987: 232) of many of the utterances was abnormal. The terminal segment is referred to as a “final rapid rise or fall” (Blumstein et al. 1987: 232) in the fundamental frequency. The final results showed that the terminal segments were not normal with an occurrence of many very large pitches and many inappropriate peaks even in the production of single lexemes.

The read and repeated sentences were fairly normal apart from the terminal segment of the sentences (same as in the spontaneous speech).

For Blumstein et al. it is clear, that the speech of the patient is different from the one of native speakers of English and sounds like an acquired accent, but they speak about a “genric foreign accent” (Blumstein et al., 1987: 243). The explanation is that the patient´s speech doesn´t contain features of any specific language, but other characteristics which lead to the perception of a foreign accent. In addition, the authors add that the features found only occur in natural languages.

4.2 Kurowski et al. 1996

The next case which is to be presented is a patient of Kurowski, Blumstein et al. (1996). It is 45 years old man who suffered a stroke in the front lobe, left hemisphere. The examiners found the patient to speak with a foreign accent which they assumed to be “British, Scottish, Irish or […] Eastern European” (Kurowski et al., 1996: 5). The patient was born in Chicago speaking English and acquired some knowledge in French and Spanish, but there was no source for his acquired accent. Therefore it might be subsequent to the stroke. The methods used to analyze the patient´s speech will not be explained as they are similar the ones used with the first patient by Blumstein et al. (1987). The results of the study reassure the authors of Blumstein et al. (1987) previous assumption that the FAS doesn´t represent a real foreign accent. The findings of the acoustic analysis in the patient were: “vowel centralization, the production of flaps as full stops, and the relatively infrequent addition of an epenthetic schwa in a CVC environment” (Kurowski et al., 1996: 19). The other tested characteristics were normal for speakers of English. Even the prosody, which in the other patient of Blumstein et al. (1987) was abnormal, was found to be average apart from the fact that he made long pauses in the sentences and his word stress and syllable structure were disturbed sometimes. Kurowski et al. speak again about a “genric” foreign accent and suggest that every case of FAS has its own features, although some features might be in common. The authors note that in every case of FAS the prosody and the vowel production are altered in some way. (all: see Kurowski et al., 1996: 1-25)

4.3 Dankovicová et al. 2001

The third case which is to be presented is the patient of Dankovicová et al. (2001) which is from interest as the case of this patient is different from the previous ones and reveals some newer findings. Their patient was a 43 years old female from South Britain who suffered a cerebrovascular accident. She got an “infarct in the territory of the right middle cerebral artery, following which she developed a left hemiplegia” (Dankovicová et al., 2001: 199). This means that her motor centers were affected and she got partly paralyzed due to the infarct. Three weeks after the stroke she was seen by a language and speech therapist and a mild dysathria, long messed up sentences, pragmatic problems and very fast speaking were diagnosed. Apart from that she gave a few responses in French. Over time the patient started to acquire a Scottish accent. The patient´s pre-stroke speech was recorded, so the researchers were able to compare the same text samples of pre- and post-stroke speech. They conducted two different kinds of analysis. The first one was an “impressionistic analysis” (Dankovicová et al., 2001: 201) where phoneticians analyzed the patient´s speech. Almost all of the phoneticians agreed on the speech of the patient to be Scottish, but couldn´t draw it to a specific region of Scotland. So in this case of FAS all listeners of the speech categorized it as the same accent. A test conducted with native speakers of Scottish revealed the same results. The further impressionistic analysis showed that the prosody of the patient didn´t seem to be largely affected. Intonation was judged to be neither typically for English nor for Scottish, but more Scottish than English. Regarding the rhythm the phoneticians came to the same conclusion. Therefore, different than in the above mentioned cases prosody didn´t seem to be a factor. Apart from that, the vowel /ɔ/ seemed shortened, “the vowel /i/ sounded more fronted and /ʌ/ more raised than” (Dankovicová et al. 2001, 203) in the pre-stroke speech. Another finding was that sometimes in the post-stroke version a dark /ɬ/ replaced a clear /l/ and vice versa. The second stage of analysis was an acoustic analysis which came to the following results: The position of “vowels within the vowel space” (Dankovicová et al., 2001: 206) differs significantly and this condition is mostly perceptible to listeners. In addition vowels were shorter in the post-stroke speech (i.e. in dysillabic words) while consonants seemed to be longer. The total system of vowel and consonant rhythm was influenced which may contributed to the perception of a foreign accent. Furthermore, the degree of opening was significantly different in the diphthong /aɪ/, /əʊ/ “seemed to be more raised and backer as a whole after the stroke […] [and] the vowel space for diphthongs became more peripheral after the stroke” (Dankovicová et al., 2001: 208) at the same time. Apart from that, an analysis was conducted for the duration of aspiration in stressed syllable initial position. The duration of aspiration in plosives after the stroke was found to be significantly shorter in comparison to the pre-stroke speech. In contrast to other case studies the intonation didn´t show any untypical rises or falls in sentence final positions. With respect to dark /ɬ/ and clear /l/ the realization was not systematic.

The acoustic analysis also confirmed the patient´s prosody to be “relatively unimpaired” (Dakovicová et al., 2001: 214). This is – as stated earlier – a remarkable difference to the previous cases where prosody seemed to be one of the main characteristics of FAS. On the other hand this patient does not show some other features known from previous cases of FAS as for example changes in the manner of articulation. (all: see Dankovicová et al, 2001: 195-218)

5. Discussion

As already indicated in the case reports the speech in the case of FAS is not really foreign but simply shows some features which are designated to foreign speech. In the first two cases the listeners could not agree on the kind of foreign accent and suggested various L1s. Meanwhile, in the third case almost all listeners judged the patient´s speech to be Scottish. As mentioned earlier, the segmental features are the stronger indicators to the perception of speech as foreign. (see Jilka, 2000: 175) Therefore the comparison will be conducted first. The most consistent finding is in all three cases that there are ongoing changes in the production of vowels (in the first case (Blumstein et al.,1987) a slight change in the vowel production changed the rhythm of speech, second case (Kurowski et al., 1996): vowels were more centralized, third case (Dankovicová, 2001): vowels were shortened and consonants lengthened). These characteristics change the sound of the phonemes, words and sentences and therefore make speakers sound different from the norm which would be expected by a native speaker. In the case of a real foreign accent it is (often) possible to distinguish the L1 of a speaker by listening to their pronunciation in the L2. The foreign accent syndrome, on the other hand, seldom allows the listener to be sure about the origin of the speaker as the speech does not really contain features of one specific language, but of many. (see Kurowski et al., 1996) The cause of this impossibility to determine the type of accent is probably that there is no direct origin for the pronounced sound, but it is rather produced for pathological reasons which are not under the control of the speaker. One might say that this is the case for a real foreign accent, too. The main difference is that in the case of the foreign accent the speaker maintains patterns of a language which is known to him (L1) and unconsciously transfers them to the L2, whereas the accent of the FAS patient does not come from an L1, but influences the speaker´s L1.


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The Phenomenon of the Foreign Accent Syndrome
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phenomenon, foreign, accent, syndrome
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Sarah Darwish (Author), 2017, The Phenomenon of the Foreign Accent Syndrome, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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