Medical Foreign Accent syndrome baffles medical experts

Ivan Seeking

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... Langdon, a healthy, active woman of 51, had had a stroke. And like many people who suffer strokes, her life since that weekend in May 2002 hasn't been quite the same.

She doesn't run for exercise anymore; her weakened right arm keeps her off the tennis court.

And - most puzzling to her and others - when she speaks, her voice sounds like she comes from France.

The accent is rather odd for a woman who grew up in Missouri. And it's still much a mystery even to scientists who have studied cases similar to Langdon's. [continued]
http://www.thestate.com/mld/thestate/news/nation/13368286.htm
 
Thats really interesting. I wonder if people like that could also give us insight into how the brain works when people pick up a 2nd language as a non-native speaker after the developmental time frame for when children can "absorb" a new language has ended and foreign language is much harder to learn. Seems she forgot how to make the sounds that make native speakers of the english language distinctive and had to try and relearn them. Foreign speakers of english often have a hard time doing this. Any thoughts?
 
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Yeah, that's a fascinating article. I read the story of a similar patient a long time ago who was American but ended up with what sounded like a Swedish accent.

I would like to hear recordings of all these people to see if they actually sound like they're speaking with a full blown, specific foreign accent or if it's only a coincidental kind of resemblence.

If they sound quite specific, one thing that would suggest to me is that the brain has certain built in "modes" that it want's to drop into. If a stroke ruins one mode speech will reassert itself in some other pre-existing mode. If you start out pronouncing a certain kind of sound the brain might automatically have a proclivity to make sounds that compliment that one in some important physiological way.
 
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There is some other answer to the foreign accent thing. Maybe she is a transplanted person, a deep cover agent, or an adoptee that never remembered being adopted, and her first language is French. Maybe she had undiagnosed MPD, and now it can't be disguised. Head injuries do not create alternative accents. Head trauma might make it difficult to speak like an native English speaker, if she weren't.
 

honestrosewater

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I haven't gotten into these things enough yet to be very helpful, but for anyone who's interested, you can google segmentals and suprasegmentals, especially looking at laryngeal and supralaryngeal settings. I think the 'slightly breathy' quality of her voice, for instance, is pretty straightforwardly related to the vibration of her vocal cords (perhaps because her control of the relevant muscles was affected, for instance). Anywho, I just wanted to point out this part:
The act of speaking involves the movement and coordination of 50 muscles, Fridriksson says, and damage along the nerve network could affect any movement controlling the larynx or face or other speech-related body parts.

It's too soon to identify which of those brain fibers, neurons or muscle movements add up to a voice that sounds like an accented, non-native speaker of English or any other language.
I don't understand why anyone would assume this was anything more than a coincidence. Her speech has changed, presumably as a result of some physical damage, in such a way that people happen to perceive a foreign accent in it. Wouldn't you expect this to happen occasionally if a familiar accent is just a certain combination of properties of speech? Do they not know what was damaged? I guess I should check out that paper. I don't really have much to add. That headline just makes me cringe a bit -- I don't see what would be baffling about any of this. What expert doesn't expect these aspects of human language to be complex? 'We don't know yet' doesn't mean 'we're stumped'.
 
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Evo

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This is a bit ridiculous. Their speech is impaired and people think they're hearing what sounds to them like a foreign accent. And it may have similarities, but it has nothing to do with knowing another language as a result of the stroke. :rolleyes:

My father suffered a massive stroke and had partial paralysis of his face and vocal cords. He had to go through extensive therapy to talk again. He never sounded the same. His voice became high pitched, like Mickey Mouse. So I guess my dad suffered from Mickey Mouse syndrome before he died?
 
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honestrosewater said:
I don't understand why anyone would assume this was anything more than a coincidence. Her speech has changed, presumably as a result of some physical damage, in such a way that people happen to perceive a foreign accent in it. Wouldn't you expect this to happen occasionally if a familiar accent is just a certain combination of properties of speech? Do they not know what was damaged?
That's the thing: the neurological underpinnings of "accent" are clearly not understood. These patients raise questions about what causes us to have an 'accent" in the first place, and why a certain kind of stroke seems to prevent them from relearning the same habit of pronounciation. They really don't know what was damaged.

Take the patient mentioned whose relearned speech ended up sounding British. You have to ask why the choice of quality of vowels and consonants that seemed easiest to acquire after the stroke were related to each other the same way those of British people are related. The question becomes whether or not accents are completely arbitrary in the first place or if the brain doesn't naturally prefer to adopt specific constellations of pronounciation.
 

Ivan Seeking

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zoobyshoe said:
That's the thing: the neurological underpinnings of "accent" are clearly not understood. These patients raise questions about what causes us to have an 'accent" in the first place, and why a certain kind of stroke seems to prevent them from relearning the same habit of pronounciation. They really don't know what was damaged.

Take the patient mentioned whose relearned speech ended up sounding British. You have to ask why the choice of quality of vowels and consonants that seemed easiest to acquire after the stroke were related to each other the same way those of British people are related. The question becomes whether or not accents are completely arbitrary in the first place or if the brain doesn't naturally prefer to adopt specific constellations of pronounciation.
This is what I was thinking. I remember a lecture some years ago in which language was alleged to be connected to music and art. It was alleged that the language first learned somehow primes the brain to have certain qualities that result in the music and art found in a culture.
 

Ivan Seeking

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However, when I spend a lot of time in the South - Alabama, N. Carolina, Arkansas, Texas - I start sounding just like the people who live there...at least to me I do. :biggrin: I pick up accents very easily.
 
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vanesch

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And - most puzzling to her and others - when she speaks, her voice sounds like she comes from France.
:rofl: :rofl:
When in school we used to tell racist jokes like that...
If you are (U)-speaking and you want quickly to learn to be (V) speaking, have 2/3s of your brain removed and you'll wake up talking (V) :rofl:

(U) is the language of the "superior" people
(V) is the language of the low life forms.
 

Ivan Seeking

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I would think this has more to do with other regions of the brain taking over in some sense, rather than the loss of function; assuming of course that it really is an accent in the sense that we are thinking.
 
I would have to agree with Ivan Seeking in that the accent has more to do with certain areas compensating for the damage done hence resulting in an something sounding like an accent. Thats assuming I understand Ivan's statement.
 

Moonbear

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zoobyshoe said:
I would like to hear recordings of all these people to see if they actually sound like they're speaking with a full blown, specific foreign accent or if it's only a coincidental kind of resemblence.
I was wondering that too. Would someone from France think it was a French accent? Somehow, I suspect it's more likely that someone with impaired speech who sounds more "nasal" than previously might be assumed to have a "French" accent by someone who has never left Missouri, but someone from France would still think it was an American accent, just with an impairment.
 
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gumbythescientist said:
I would have to agree with Ivan Seeking in that the accent has more to do with certain areas compensating for the damage done hence resulting in an something sounding like an accent. Thats assuming I understand Ivan's statement.
Thing is, "something sounding like an accent" is all we need to wonder about what goes into producing an accent in the first place, and if the brain comes predisposed to discrete pronounciation clusters. There's a suggestion, at least, here that this might be the case.
 

Evo

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After reading a few articles on it, it's simply a form of speech impairment, or more specifically a change of speech patterns which in some cases can mimick what sounds like a foreign accent due to pitch, inflection, etc... In other cases, like my dad the most noticeable change was the pitch. Listening to him talk was upsetting, it was no longer my dad's voice.

I guess what irks me is that they're focusing on a handful that suffer from an impairment because it sounds similar to a foreign accent, which makes it a novelty but what about the thousands whose speech has changed after a stroke but aren't lucky enough to sound like an accent, they just sound weird? Maybe I'm just taking this too personally.

"This is because they haven't really picked up the accent. Their speech patterns have changed. Injury to their brain causes them to lengthen syllables, alter their pitch or mispronounce sounds. These changes make it sound like they have picked up an accent. They may lengthen syllables."

""They recover to various degrees. When they don't recover or when they only have very, very residual effects left its heard as an accent. Its a real phenomenon. It just hasn't been documented very often."


http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3235934.stm

"A small number of them all had tiny areas of damage in various parts of the brain.

This might explain the combination of subtle changes to vocal features such as lengthening of syllables, altered pitch or mispronounced sounds which make a patient's pronunciation sound similar to a foreign accent."


http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2300395.stm
 
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Ivan Seeking

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Moonbear said:
but someone from France would still think it was an American accent, just with an impairment.
But that's what the French think about Americans who have even studied the language! :biggrin:
 
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Evo said:
After reading a few articles on it, it's simply a form of speech impairment, or more specifically a change of speech patterns which in some cases can mimick what sounds like a foreign accent due to pitch, inflection, etc...
This is already clear in the first article. I'm not sure what else you thought it was saying that you objected to.
In other cases, like my dad the most noticeable change was the pitch. Listening to him talk was upsetting, it was no longer my dad's voice.
The same dynamic of damaged function being taken over by a different group of neurons is probably behind it. What it says to me is that the very act of pitching our voices in a certain range is controled by dedicated neurons. It suggests that whenever we change the pitch of our voice we are also switching control to different neurons. In your father's case it seems that all the control neurons for lower pitches were damaged. The only pitch control neurons he had left to employ were those in the upper registers.
I guess what irks me is that they're focusing on a handful that suffer from an impairment because it sounds similar to a foreign accent, which makes it a novelty but what about the thousands whose speech has changed after a stroke but aren't lucky enough to sound like an accent, they just sound weird? Maybe I'm just taking this too personally.
The effects of stroke and other brain problems on language is a very heavily studied phenomenon. Broca's discovery of an area exclusive to the left frontal lobe dedicated to language production was probably the first important neurological discovery ever made. This is the area where grammar and syntax are put together. Damage to this area leaves people only able to express abrieviated concepts like "I go store" for "I'm going to the store" or "Guy eat McDonalds..." for "There was a guy eating at a McDonald's..."
"This is because they haven't really picked up the accent. Their speech patterns have changed. Injury to their brain causes them to lengthen syllables, alter their pitch or mispronounce sounds. These changes make it sound like they have picked up an accent. They may lengthen syllables."
Hmmmm. This is already clear from the first article. I think you may have misunderstood them to be saying something like the people emerge from the stroke compelled somehow to affect accents, which wasn't ever implied.
""They recover to various degrees. When they don't recover or when they only have very, very residual effects left its heard as an accent. Its a real phenomenon. It just hasn't been documented very often."
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3235934.stm
All already understood from the first article.
"A small number of them all had tiny areas of damage in various parts of the brain.
This might explain the combination of subtle changes to vocal features such as lengthening of syllables, altered pitch or mispronounced sounds which make a patient's pronunciation sound similar to a foreign accent."

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2300395.stm
All already understood. These articles seem to be trying to explain to neurologically naive people simply that these people aren't faking or affecting these speech patterns or something. I'm still not sure what a couple people have been thinking the OP article implied that they're objecting to.
 

honestrosewater

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zoobyshoe said:
That's the thing: the neurological underpinnings of "accent" are clearly not understood.
I don't know what you mean by 'accent' here. How do speakers produce and perceive 'accents'? Which physical properties of the speech sounds are relevant? Do sign languages have 'accents'? Linguists have already done a lot of work on this subject, so you could just take a look at what they've come up with (you'd want phonetics and phonology), or if you already know, just share. I know a bit about speech.
These patients raise questions about what causes us to have an 'accent" in the first place,
What do you think causes 'accents'? I think (though I don't know precisely what you consider an accent, if it's anything close to the usual meaning of the word) it's quite obviously the phonology of the language. What kind of cause are you looking for?
and why a certain kind of stroke seems to prevent them from relearning the same habit of pronounciation.
What do you mean by a certain kind of stroke? What's special about these strokes?
Take the patient mentioned whose relearned speech ended up sounding British. You have to ask why the choice of quality of vowels and consonants that seemed easiest to acquire after the stroke were related to each other the same way those of British people are related.
What is the probability of it? That's the first question I would ask.
Who or what is making the choice? Who says they are the easiest? It sounds like there is considerable effort made to produce speech correctly, i.e., according to the phonological rules of the language (and perhaps of the dialect or accent too). Isn't that why people have to go through speech therapy?
What do you think they are relearning? The article said that her knowledge remained intact. I got the impression that she didn't have to relearn how her speech should sound but had problems controlling her muscles.
And it most likely isn't only the vowels and consonants (segmentals) that contribute to accents but also suprasegmental (a.k.a. prosodic) features, which include pitch, rhythm, stress, etc. and can affect the distribution of allomorphs. For instance, which syllable in hitting is stressed will determine -- by a rule of English phonology -- how the tt is pronounced. (Try it. Say it normally. Then stress the second syllable. Hear a difference?)
The question becomes whether or not accents are completely arbitrary in the first place or if the brain doesn't naturally prefer to adopt specific constellations of pronounciation.
Okay, I don't really understand what that means -- and the choice between completely arbitrary or 'constellations of pronunciation' seems fishy -- but let me just ask this: if a person develops a limp after a stroke, would you posit 'constellations of gait'? Seriously, because that may be a simpler case to consider.
Thing is, "something sounding like an accent" is all we need to wonder about what goes into producing an accent in the first place,
According to one theory, what native speakers often perceive as a foreign accent often includes an illegal (according to the rules of that particular language) sequence of phonemes, which usually results from the phonological rules of one language being applied to another language. A sequence can be phonologically illegal by containing
1) illegal phonemes (sounds that aren't part of the language)
2) phonemes in an illegal order (e.g. /glob/, globe, is legal in English but /lgbo/ is not)
3) an illegal distribution of allophones (e.g. [fil], feel, with [l] pronounced incorrectly (nonvelarized))​
which could all result from the impairment of a speaker's speech organs as well as from someone not using the correct rules. Again, the breathy quality to her voice, for instance, is pretty straightforward. Here's a quick explanation of how that feature of speech is produced (or not produced). I found some awesome movies of the larynx in action too. Check out the breathy phonation one.
Hm, I'd like to know if any part of her recurrent laryngeal nerve was damaged...

Are you suggesting that she started applying different phonological rules?
and if the brain comes predisposed to discrete pronounciation clusters. There's a suggestion, at least, here that this might be the case.
If these discrete pronounciation clusters did exist, why didn't all of those other cases of speech impairment following stroke result in Foreign Accent syndrome? How many 'preexisting modes' (or constellations or clusters) do you speculate there are? There are 6-7,000 known languages in the world right now, with at least some languages having multiple accents. When a native American English speaker does an impression of John Cleese, is a different mode activated? I guess I just don't really understand what you're suggesting. ??
 
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honestrosewater

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zoobyshoe said:
The same dynamic of damaged function being taken over by a different group of neurons is probably behind it. What it says to me is that the very act of pitching our voices in a certain range is controled by dedicated neurons. It suggests that whenever we change the pitch of our voice we are also switching control to different neurons. In your father's case it seems that all the control neurons for lower pitches were damaged. The only pitch control neurons he had left to employ were those in the upper registers.
Pitch (percieved frequency) is related to the rate of vibration of the vocal cords (a.k.a. vocal folds. FYI: I'm switching to vocal folds; vocal cords is a bit of a misnomer. I'm talking about the same thing).
Contracting the cricothyroid muscle pulls the front of the cricoid cartilage up towards the thyroid, so the back
of cricoid moves down and back, taking arytenoids with it, and stretching and tensing the vocal folds → they
vibrate faster.
Contracting the vocalis muscle shortens and tenses vocal folds.

- http://kiri.ling.cam.ac.uk/rachel/14oct05.pdf [Broken]
Perhaps it's already known which neurons control those muscles. ??
 
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honestrosewater said:
Okay, I don't really understand what that means -- and the choice between completely arbitrary or 'constellations of pronunciation' seems fishy -- but let me just ask this: if a person develops a limp after a stroke, would you posit 'constellations of gait'? Seriously, because that may be a simpler case to consider.
I'm going to address this question from your flood of questions because I think it reveals the assumptions you're making about the "foreign accent" syndrome and why you're objecting to my suggestions.

I'm not seeing the result here as a "limp" but a replacement with a completely different, viable gait. It's not the neurons that directly control muscle movement that are compromised, it would be ones that tell those neurons "in what manner" to move.

I am suggesting that someone like John Cleese is utilizing different neurons when he changes his voice or accent. The choices are: A.)one set of neurons can do many different things, or, B.) neurons are dedicated to specific tasks. If damaged, the same task can be taken over by other neurons but their specific dedication is somewhat different, so they will not be able to reproduce the original "manner" of doing something.

It could be that if you subtract certain things from an American accent causing it to "limp" you'll end up with a British accent of some sorts. It could be that if you carefully and selectively damage someones leg muscles you
could arrive at something that very closely resembles someone elses distinctive gait. I'm not dismissing that and asserting my notion is obviously the right one. All I'm saying is what these cases suggest to me.
 
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honestrosewater said:
Pitch (percieved frequency) is related to the rate of vibration of the vocal cords.
Rate of vibration is controlled by tension. The more tightly they are stretched, the higher the pitch. The suggestion I see from the case of Evo's father is that different neurons control different degrees of tension, and that all but the ones controlling maximum tension were damaged in the stroke.
Perhaps it's already known which neurons control those muscles. ??
I'd be surprised if the general populations of neurons that contribute haven't been been located. Knowing "where" doesn't mean they understand "what" in detail, though. There's much more to it than tracing a muscle contraction back to a patch of neurons because from there you might be able to trace 20 different paths back to other areas feeding important imput to that one.
 

honestrosewater

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Okay, that's fine. You certainly don't need to answer my questions. I was just trying to point out some of what seemed to me like holes in and problems with your suggestions. I can't keep talking about accents without you clarifying what an 'accent' is -- it's not like scientists haven't already studied these things and come up with useful answers. Heck, a definition might even answer, for instance, this:
It could be that if you subtract certain things from an American accent causing it to "limp" you'll end up with a British accent of some sorts.
telling you whether it's possible, what you'd have to change, and so on and save the unnecessary speculation.
 
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So, you think it's exclusively a "limp" situation?
 

honestrosewater

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zoobyshoe said:
So, you think it's exclusively a "limp" situation?
I don't know enough to say. BTW, I only meant a limp to be a change from their original gait (their original gait being unavailable). I thought you were suggesting that specific accents were somehow preprogrammed into us. So for instance, if the Midwestern English circuit was damaged, the Cockney or perhaps Received Pronunciation (very, very, very modern inventions in evolutionary terms) circuit took over. And from what I do know about language and our bodies, that's problematic.
 
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Evo

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zoobyshoe said:
Rate of vibration is controlled by tension. The more tightly they are stretched, the higher the pitch. The suggestion I see from the case of Evo's father is that different neurons control different degrees of tension, and that all but the ones controlling maximum tension were damaged in the stroke.
Actually it is a combination of brain damage (always the result of a stroke) and partial paralysis of the vocal cords and facial muscles (also a result of stroke). These all combine to cause a difference in pitch and enunciation.

zoobyshoe said:
This is already clear in the first article. I'm not sure what else you thought it was saying that you objected to.
No, in the first few posts, it seemed people were not very clear on exactly what was meant by "foreign accent syndrome" at all, including you, you said you would need to listen to audio clips to hear exactly what was being referred to.
 

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