Baltimore man's stroke led to 'foreign' accent

October 17, 1990|By Gerri Kobren

A 33-year-old Baltimore man, recovering from a stroke, began to speak with the melodic cadence and extended vowels Americans associate with Scandinavia, a University of Maryland doctor reported yesterday at an American Neurological Association meeting in Atlanta.

The patient, who was tall, blond and Scandinavian-looking -- although he was from Essex and had never visited the northern European countries -- had a rare condition known as "foreign accent syndrome," according to Dr. Dean Tippett, a neurologist at the University of Maryland Medical System.

This syndrome can affect people of any nationality. And, no, it doesn't mean they suddenly become able to speak a foreign tongue, doctors explain.

It is "in no way a real foreign accent," according to Ola Selness, assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

"A change in sentence melody is the hallmark; speech is altered in some non-specific fashion that makes it sound like a foreign accent. Different people will interpret it differently."

Dr. Tippett's patient, speaking in a melodic singsong, would change certain vowels, saying "heel" instead of "hill," according to Kelly Yeakle, a speech pathologist who worked with the patient at the Montebello Center, part of the University of Maryland Medical System. And he would add an a-sound to his words.

"He'd say 'How are-a you today?' or 'I-a-go to the store' ," she said.

Although the patient recovered normal speech within a few months of his stroke in 1988, he was aware of the foreign sound while it was happening and was pleased about it, she continued: "He liked it because he thought it would help him pick up women."

The stroke damage was on the left side of his brain -- which generally controls speech -- and left him paralyzed on the right side of his body.

This particular speech deficit "usually occurs during the first two to three months after a stroke, and after speech improves, it usually goes away," said Dr. Selness.

"If speech is severely impaired, the patient can't talk enough to sound like a foreigner, and if the speech impairment is mild, it won't happen at all."

Foreign accent syndrome can affect people of any nationality. "English speakers can sound Spanish, and Spanish people can vTC sound English, and there was one case reported in 1983 where a Portuguese-American sounded Chinese," Ms. Yeakle said.

The foreign accent "is in the mind of the beholder," said Dr. Victor Mark, director of the stroke unit at Montebello. "It's a term we impose on the patient. [In the case reported by Dr. Tippett] the inflection just happened to resemble Swedish. But I'm not sure a person from Scandinavia would agree."

The best-known case is Scandinavian: During World War II, a Norwegian woman lost her ability to speak after being struck in the head by a shell fragment during a Nazi bombing.

"When she recovered, she had a foreign accent," Dr. Selness said. "Unfortunately, it sounded like a German accent, and, as you can imagine, that didn't make her popular in Norway during the war."

Dr. Tippett reported the Baltimore case because of a dual oddity -- the foreign accent syndrome and the stroke's location deep in the brain, which is not an area usually associated with speech disorders.

The relative youth of the patient, the location of the lesion and the patient's eventual recovery of normal speech may provide clues about the way the brain reorganizes itself after such damage, Dr. Tippett said.

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