Sunday, January 1, 2017

Open letter to Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) speakers, audiences and researchers: you are loved, don’t lose confidence in life because of your accents

To people with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), their loved ones, researchers, audiences and others,

I’m Joseph S. Lee, a blind student at Los Angeles City College majoring in communication studies. First, Happy New Year to you all. May 2017 be a great year for all of you as you go through your lives, conditions, FAS awareness, research and so on.
After reading an article about Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), I decided to do some research, and based on what I can find, decided to write this letter in hopes that this may encourage you as you bring awareness of your condition to others around the world. Since I don’t know many (or perhaps all) of you, I figured it would be best to start by describing my own blindness, how I got to learning about FAS, my assessment of current research findings, as well as offer some things I believe we should think about throughout 2017 and beyond when it comes to dealing with this condition.

First, I was born in South Korea and came to United States when I was eleven. Back in Korea, the first few months after my birth were spent on hospital visits in an effort to have an unneeded stuff removed from my right eye. After some operations, I was left with blindness on my right eye. More than a decade later, I lost most of my sight on my left eye due to glaucoma when I was a teenager, and now, almost all of my eyesight is gone. Still, because I do remember what things looked like years ago, I do remember colors, can describe visual controls on a computer screen, and studied the art and science of computer programming and competitive public speaking despite my blindness.
As a person who cannot see yet hear a bit better, I became interested in communication, computer science and languages from high school and beyond. I read books on basics of linguistics, read articles about language families around the world, and studied interpersonal and intercultural communication at LACC. Thus, my curiosity about people’s ability to speak different languages spontaneously led me to an article about FAS, and after reading an overview from Wikipedia and other scholarly sources, I decided to do some research.

At first, I wanted to find out how people with this condition sounded like, so I listened to some YouTube videos where folks such as Ellen Spencer, Kath Lockett, and Lisa Alamia were interviewed. I then found a Snap Judgement episode where Ellen told her story, as well as to listen to a brief sample of how her voice sounded like before the onset of FAS in 2009. Based on what I heard, I can see why many would confuse this Indiana native for a European immigrant due to her accent. Further searches led to testimonials and video interviews from others, including a series of videos posted by a lady in Pennsylvania who could have been mistaken for a foreigner, with many in this community describing their experience as disturbing and the loss of identity as a result.

As I was doing some readings (including various news articles where Dr. Nick Miller, an expert on FAS  was cited), several questions came to my mind, some of them unexpected and some I felt the FAS community may have not asked before. The first was effect of this condition on speakers (those with FAS) in terms of outlook on life, psychological changes and cultural issues. Although I can tell that FAS did leave some effects, I wanted to know exactly how much and contributing factors. For example, Sarah Colwill reported shocks at first, and her emotional health was affected once FAS kicked in, adding that it led to her leaving her job and other issues. Kath Lockett’s story was more intriguing, as mention of loss of identity caught my eye and led me to asking myself about how speakers compared the old and new identities and other issues.
The second question was implications beyond the brain and face – social, cultural, and so on. Testimonies of FAS speakers carried a common theme: prejudice and mistaken perceptions. For example, in various articles, some, including Ellen told stories of friends hanging up phone calls due to their newly acquired accent, while some lamented that society believes that FAS is just caused by brain injury or stroke. The conclusion I could draw from these was that there are still misconceptions about FAS, and that, and other factors such as lack of awareness in the past may have contributed to society’s current perception of this condition as just a speech disorder when in fact this has other implications such as misunderstandings, prejudice and so on, given that some parts of the world are less accepting of those with foreign accents (or those who acquired it due to trauma and other factors).
The third question I had was regarding potential recovery, solutions and computational and other scientific modeling and studies. One thing I did not find easily was progress towards potential solutions or computational models for ease of diagnoses and possible cure. Although I do accept that FAS is permanent for some, I do hope that, eventually, a possible helpful tool could be developed to lessen the burden of speakers and clinicians to a point where speakers can recover some of their former speaking patterns. For example, there is a case of FAS (documented on YouTube) where the speaker recovered her original accent by repeatedly practicing her speech patterns, but such a case is rare (rarer than the number of FAS cases).
Lastly, after some reflections and reading blog posts from Ellen and others, I felt there’s something parties involved can do to help FAS speakers. For medical professionals, it could be learning more about this condition and come up with more effective testing and treatment options. For speakers, it could be to raise awareness and taking the initiative to let the society know that they are just like the others, allowing their potential to be showcased. For audiences (including I and others), it could be to understand what the speakers are going through and help them achieve their dreams and goals, and in the end, embrace and support them.

I hope that, by publishing this open letter, the FAS community and those outside can reflect on what’s going on, as well as find encouragement, knowing that there is at least another person who is willing to accept them for who they are – not merely due to sharing the common theme of disability and accents, but because I believe that these people have immense potential to change lives.

To people with Foreign Accent Syndrome: First and foremost, on behalf of those who have just learned about your condition and came to an understanding regarding what could be going on, I’d like to apologize for our past misconceptions and mistaken perceptions about what you are going through. I’m sorry to hear about losses you had to endure – finances, jobs and others, but most importantly, loss of a part of you and dreams. Please forgive me and others for frowning at your conditions without realizing the vast implications that goes beyond your faces and ability to communicate effectively.
Second, as someone with a disability and a person with some accents when speaking English (not because of FAS but English being my second language), I’d like to assure you that you are not alone. You still have plenty of opportunities to showcase your talents in your lives. To me, what’s more important is seeing you overcome this condition by utilizing skills acquired throughout your lives – thick accents cannot stop you. Please don’t consider your new accents as something to be ashamed of – rather, think of it as though a host of new opportunities have opened up for you.
Lastly, I’d like to say that you are so much loved. Don’t forget those who are supporting you, and people (including I) who are willing to go beyond the accents and embrace you for who you truly are. Let your confidence and talents, as well as continued awareness efforts, be cornerstones for change of cultural, social, and scientific perceptions regarding Foreign Accent Syndrome. I love you all.

To FAS audiences (those outside this community and are intrigued by it): In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. outlined a vision of a society where people accept others regardless of color skin. I’d like to add “accents” to this vision. I’m sure some of us have ethnocentric views regarding someone’s accent. If our stereotypes and prejudice about accents of foreigners affect the self-esteem of the individuals in question, how much more would it affect native speakers who have acquired accents due to medical conditions? Because of our continued prejudice and ignorance, many FAS speakers are going through identity crises and are enduring emotional and other stresses.
The reason why I, a blind person was able to learn computer science and found talents in public speaking during speech competitions despite my disability was because many blind people in the past have managed to change mainstream perceptions about blindness through their advocacy, talents and confidence. The reason why you are hearing more about Foreign Accent Syndrome is because people like Ellen Spencer, Sarah Colwill, FAS researcher Dr. Nick Miller and other FAS champions and community members stood up and spoke about what they are going through and have researched. Although FAS speakers may have thick accents, they have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness – folks with skills and talents that can be used to improve their self-esteem and bring about change. I’d like to suggest and ask that we become Good Samaritans and show FAS speakers that we love and support them, and are willing to go with them on their journeys to understanding more about this condition and help them recover or rediscover their identities and confidence in life.

Joseph S. Lee
January 2017


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