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British Woman Wakes Up With Strong Chinese Accent: What To Know About Foreign Accent Syndrome

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A 40-year-old woman in the United Kingdom, who suddenly developed a strong Chinese accent after surviving a stroke, was informed by doctors that the rare condition is permanent and she may never be able to talk the way she used to again.

Plymouth native Sarah Colwill used to have a strong Devon drawl whenever she talked, but everything changed after she experienced a stroke one evening.

After the incident, Colwill discovered that her Devon accent was replaced with a strong Chinese sounding one, despite never having been to China in her life.

Colwill's doctors have tried every possible option they have to treat her condition but to no avail. They informed her that the effects of her condition could potentially be permanent.

"When I think about how much my life has changed, it is devastating," Colwill said.

"Being told I would be like this forever was a heart breaking thing to hear. It was a real bombshell."

Foreign Accent Syndrome

According to her doctors, Colwill's condition is called Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), and hers is just one of only 20 identified cases in the world.

FAS is a disorder that alters the speech pattern of individuals, causing them to speak with a "foreign" sounding accent. It is often caused by damage to the brain as a result of stroke or brain trauma. Other potential causes of FAS include conversion disorder and multiple sclerosis.

People with FAS may have their speech changed in terms of intonation, timing and tongue placement. The individual's speech is still highly intelligible and the condition does not necessarily make it sound disordered.

Documented cases of FAS from different parts of the world include changes in accent from American English to British English, British English to French, Spanish to Hungarian and Japanese to Korean.

In Colwill's case, her accent was changed from British English to Chinese.

Symptoms and Risk Factors

Some of the most common changes in speech associated with Foreign Accent Syndrome include errors that are fairly predictable, errors in voicing, difficulty with consonant clusters and unusual prosody, often with equal or excess stress.

FAS sufferers also tend to delete, distort, or substitute consonants and vowels during speech.

Since brain damage is one of the possible causes of Foreign Accent Syndrome, people with particularly high risk for stroke also have a higher likelihood to develop the speech disorder. Those suffering from aphasia or apraxia are also considered at high risk for FAS.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Doctors diagnosed FAS through a series of procedures, which includes reviewing the symptoms and medical history of a patient, a physical exam to test the movement of muscles during speech and a psychological evaluation in order to rule out the possibility of psychiatric conditions.

The patient's language skills will be assessed through reading, writing and language comprehension tests. It also involves using voice recordings of the patient to analyze speech pattern.

Images of the brain will also be taken through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) scan, single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scan and positron emission tomography (PET) scan.

Electroencephalogram (EEG) will be conducted to measure the patient's brain activity.

Once diagnosed with the speech disorder, the patient will then undergo programs for speech therapy and counselling to help the individual and his or her family cope with the long-term effects of FAS.

Prevention

Programs for prevention of Foreign Accent Syndrome are typically based on guidelines to prevent stroke from happening.

Doctors advise people to exercise regularly and eat a healthful diet.

Individuals who smoke are urged to quit, while those who drink alcohol are asked to limit their consumption.

It is also important to maintain a healthy weight and to regularly check blood pressure.

People who experience symptoms of stroke are highly advised to go to the doctor, even if the symptoms cease.

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