Stroke Victims Pick Up Foreign Accents

Jan. 3, 2003 -- Tiffany Roberts and Cindy Langdon sounded like typical American women just a few years ago. But when they suffered strokes, they underwent a change they never expected — they both developed foreign accents.

Roberts, 57, has never been to the United Kingdom, but after suffering a stroke four years ago, she sounds as if she spent most of her life in London.

Meanwhile, Langdon, of Shawnee Mission, Kan., now sounds as if she is a native of France, although doesn't speak French and has been to Paris only once.

Roberts, who now lives in Sarasota, Fla., grew up in Indiana and has had little exposure to any foreign accents.

She says the change has emotionally devastated her because some people believe she is faking it.

"I should deserve an Academy Award if I could do that for four years, wouldn't I?" Roberts told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.

Roberts says she struggled to cope with the new voice until doctors gave her an explanation for why the change had taken place.

Roberts and Langdon have both been diagnosed with "foreign accent syndrome" as a result of their strokes.Only a tiny number of patients have been diagnosed with the syndrome since it was first discovered back in the 1940s.

The first recorded case of foreign accent syndrome was in 1941, when a Norwegian woman suffered a shrapnel injury to the head during a World War II air raid. After a struggle to communicate again, she wound up with a strong German accent.

Only a handful of cases of foreign accent syndrome have ever been reported, and until recently, some doctors dismissed the problem as more likely to be psychiatric in origin than physical.

But in the last few years researchers at Oxford University have discovered that those suffering with the syndrome seem to share important characteristics.They suffered tiny areas of damage in various parts of the brain due to an injury or a stroke.

Doctors say the various areas of damage could combine to result in subtle changes to vocal features and cause victims to alter their pitch and lengthen syllables. In some cases the changes will cause the victim to mispronounce certain sounds. As a result, the patient's pronunciation can end up sounding similar to a particular foreign accent.

Dr. Jennifer Gurd, who led the research at Oxford with phonetician Dr. John Coleman, says patients who have undergone an accent change due to a stroke or injury gain comfort in knowing why the change has occurred and that other patients have experienced it as well.

"The way we speak is an important part of our personality and influences the way people interact with us," Gurd said. "It is understandably quite traumatic for patients to find that their accent has changed."

Roberts said the change in her accent changed the way people treated her. She even lost some friends because they didn't believe that she was being genuine.

"This is very difficult for me. I don't blame them because people, what they don't understand, they get afraid of. And hopefully by coming forward now, the university [Oxford] asked me to do so, with a discovery for science, perhaps now with this new voice that God gave me, I shall be able to speak out for all those who don't have a voice anymore from a stroke," she said.

Dr. Jack Ryalls, a neurolinguistic expert from the University of Central Florida, diagnosed Roberts' condition earlier this year.

Ryalls said Roberts' accent is clearly linked to the damage caused to the subcortical areas of the brain that communicate with the speech and language areas.

However, Ryalls said it's not really understood just how the change actually occurs. Ryalls and other doctors say the only cure for the syndrome is time. But after four years, Roberts says she's not sure her British accent will ever fade away.

Langdon, 52, discovered her new French accent after a difficult struggle to communicate following her stroke.She says the change has been less of a struggle for her since she's just glad to be communicating at all.

"I haven't lost any friends. If anything, the men really like this accent. But that's not doing me much good," she said.

Langdon said her family and friends are just thankful to still have her around after the stroke. As for those who don't believe her, she really doesn't care.

"This is the way I talk now," she said in her French accent. "There's nothing I can do … it is what it is."