Foreign accent syndrome: A British woman woke up in the hospital, and she had a Chinese accent

As you might already know, severe migraines can put a damper on your daily plans. But as one UK woman discovered, they can also change your life forever.

Sarah Colwill
Sarah Colwill ©

In April 2010, after experiencing a severe migraine, 38-year-old Sarah Colwill was rushed to the hospital. Doctors and medical staff did all they could to keep her comfortable, and eventually, the migraine dissipated. Unfortunately for Colwill, when she awoke the next day, she discovered that her native Plymouth accent was gone and had been replaced with a Chinese accent.

Colwill was later diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a rare medical condition that causes patients to develop unfamiliar speech patterns that replace their own accents with different ones.

Foreign Accent Syndrome is typically the result of a massive stroke or head trauma, but migraines and developmental problems can also cause it. There were only 62 reported cases of the syndrome worldwide between 1941 and 2009.

“It’s in our ears,” says Professor Sophie Scott, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. “Speech may be altered in terms of timing, intonation, and tongue placement, so that is perceived as sounding foreign.”

But the fact the accent isn’t real doesn’t mitigate sufferers’ distress. Colwill complains that friends hang up when she phones, convinced that it is a hoax call. Scott also remembers Kath, from Stafford in the Midlands, who resorted to carrying a note explaining how cerebral vasculitis had left her sounding eastern European.

“She just got fed up of people explaining to her how the buses worked,” Scott says. “Voice is a key part of who we are and how we fit in to the world around us. Sometimes FAS can be more difficult than a trauma that robs us of speech entirely.”

However, in the case of Colwill, after more than three years of suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome, she simply longs to hear her British accent once again.