Sunday, January 1, 2017

Foreign Accent Syndrome: a brief overview, research findings so far, questions to ask

Happy New Year.

A bit different from previous posts, as I’d like to bring up a subject I just learned about on the last day of 2016. I hope this post could start a series of blog posts that could help me bring computer science, communication studies and other disciplines together, as well as to ponder some questions I think we should ask (some of them are deep, as I believe that we cannot progress in life unless we are willing to examine deep questions and statements). This particular entry is the first of a two-part series dealing with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) – this one is an overview and a set of questions, with the second part being an open letter to FAS speakers and audiences (defined as those with this condition and others who interact with them, respectively):

As I'm preparing to study biological anthropology and review my experiences with intercultural communication, I came across an article on what's termed "foreign accent syndrome", a neurological condition where a speaker appears to have spoken what he or she thought was native accent but perceived by listeners as foreign. Not only this has biological and neurological implications with lots of research to be done as to the exact cause), it has cultural and communicative implications.

Whenever we want to say something, one of the first things we would do is listening to others (a crucial step in interpersonal communication). Once a stream of sounds are heard, perceived, interpreted, and organized, we would form a response in our minds. First, the context is checked (situation, who spoke, social role, etc.), then one would build a response framework (word usage, delivery method such as tones, conveying emotions, etc.). Once this is formulated in our minds, the brain would take that as an electric signal, pass it through an area of the left hemisphere of our brain that controls speech functions, which generates muscle movement on our face (lips, jaw, etc.) so our response stream can be delivered (I say “stream” because this is a chunk of speech that may include multiple sentences and recursive building blocks).

For folks who are considered by others to have native speaker accents, this is done as described above (a high-level picture, but you get the idea). However, those who have FAS have some things that are not working as intended; specifically, according to current research findings, the auditory generation functionality of the brain isn’t working properly, caused by brain injury, stroke and other conditions, and possibly others that does not really involve the brain.

For reference, for those who are algorithmically minded, here’s a “pseudocode” of what I just described:

Function SpeakAndDeliver(response from the other party, social situation, etc.):

  1. Organize information.
  2. Decode organized information.
  3. Formulate a response.
  4. Generate signals and patterns.


  1. Mutate speech delivery generation, taking a note of what’s not working and what’s available now.


  1. Speech delivery patterns generated successfully.
  2. Deliver.


It should be noted that muscle movement plays an important part in speech delivery, as changing even one small jaw movement changes annunciation, tone, accents and so on. Based on this fact, I believe one way to check is examining facial movements more closely (I’ll leave it as a personal hypothesis due to my blindness), comparing muscle movement before and after acquisition of FAS.
A more scholarly introduction to this condition (a bit more academic than Wikipedia article and what I said above I think) can be found at:

To a person like me who'd like to learn more about this condition despite not having it and attempt at putting the puzzle together, some questions I have based on my research so far (based on different disciplines) are:

* Where exactly (neuroscience, biochemistry, chemistry, psychology): as noted above, researchers have determined that certain parts of our brain is responsible for speech delivery pattern genesis (not thoughts themselves, but transfer of thoughts to actual physical muscle movement for auditory communication and delivery). Usually, after a stroke or a trauma, a patient is often left with reduced cognitive functions, which, if triggered from speech generation area of our brain, may lead to onset of different conditions, including possible foreign accent syndrome (FAS) symptoms. But do we know exactly where this is happening? Perhaps it could be the brain alone, or could be a muscle issue (there is a case where a Texas lady developed a British English accent after waking up from a dental surgery, and this is an interesting case against single agent model (brain alone)).
* Detection and timing (neuroscience, biochemistry, psychology, environment, medicine): from what can be determined, a typical FAS is proceeded by something that affects the brain (a migraine, head injury and so on). Some patients recover their auditory communicative abilities, complete with their regular accents and speech patterns. Then some (including I) would like to know: what's different about this than saying that a certain part of our brain isn't working as advertised, and how can we detect it (either using what's out there, or via a new novel technology)?
* Speaker (neuroscience, biology, kinesiology, psychology, communication, identity, linguistics): various reports and testimonies of those with FAS report varying levels of coping with this condition, with majority of evidence pointing to lower self-esteem, loss of identity, as well as cases of those who have become more optimistic over the years. Although scientists and medical professionals may say that this is just malfunction of some parts of our brain, there is no scholarly literature (surveys, articles, etc.) I can find regarding overall quality of life, psychological implications, issues of identity, physical aspects and others that are indicative of how speakers (those with this condition) feel about what they are going through. This evidence is crucial, especially for interpretive communication scholars.
* Audience (linguistics, acoustics, psychology, communication): although there are anecdotes that point to supportive families, for strangers, this is a new and unfamiliar situation to go through. Although the question of perception and consequences for audiences may have been discussed, there is currently no known systematic study on FAS and audiences, including audience perception and reaction, degree to which speakers themselves can critically analyze their old and new speaking patterns, level of comfort between kin and strangers and so on.
* Culture and society (communication, sociology): do we know exactly how culture and society perceives FAS? In order to answer this question, it is helpful to examine this community (FAS speakers, audiences, observers and so on) as a distinctive culture, using Hofsted's dimensions, ethnography, co-cultures, behaviors and so on, along with negotiation, interaction with other cultures and so on. Without studying FAS community from cultural perspective, I believe we cannot continue on a progress towards more awareness of this condition, as well as changing perceptions regarding this.
* Other considerations (spirituality, psychology, biochemistry, computer science, communication, media studies): intrapersonal communication is real, and recent scientific discoveries and inventions point to some procedures used by our souls and minds in controlling brain and muscle activity. If intrapersonal communication is real, then before speech is generated and delivered, a FAS speaker would go through same neurological and other processes just like FAS audiences - thoughts, semantic and syntax-based construction, muscle movement planning, then delivery. Then a question becomes, can all this be modeled by computers (at least symptoms of FAS), and if so, can we progress towards a possible cure or something that could lessen burden of speakers?
* Ethical and/or some deep questions that intrigues me: is FAS all about issues with certain parts of our brain, or does it go deeper than this? Is the accent of a speaker a prominent marker of a culture, stereotypes, or ethnocentrism? Can we build cases that allows people with FAS to display their full potential, or do something to change dominant cultural perceptions of this condition (disability and ineffective communication skills with frowns) somehow and by what? What can FAS speakers themselves do to improve their lives and allow others to approach them more positively, knowing that they are just like others? What can I and others who knows about computer science and communication studies do to help these people (computational modeling, awareness, ethnographies, systematic studies, oral interpretation events about FAS at speech competitions and others)?

My wish throughout this research journey and this essay (as well as the subsequent open letter) is to learn more about this condition, as well as for those involved with this community and culture, as well as outsiders to work together in raising awareness of this rare and real condition, hopefully to get a dialogue and ponderings going. With the incidents of discrimination against immigrants on the rise, it is important for us to think about some who are indeed natives of a country yet have faced, are facing, and will face discrimination due to the way they convey their thoughts because of their new accents.

Hope this helps.

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