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Imagine waking up with a French accent. It happens.

Leanne Rowe

By MAMAMIA TEAM

If you met Australian woman Leanne Rowe at a dinner party, you might come to the conclusion she’d spent most of her life living in France. But Leanne has never spent time in France.

She’s never eaten a croissant in Lyon, never slurped red wine in Nice or seen the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Leanne studied French at high school but has never had any French friends, or lived abroad. And that’s why it’s hard for her to explain to everyone she comes into contact with, why it is that she speaks with a French accent.

Eight years ago, Leanne was involved in a serious car accident. When she woke up at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital she had a broken back and a broken jaw. She also had a French accent.

“Slowly, as my jaw started to heal, they said that I was slurring my words because I was on very powerful tablets,” Leanne told the ABC in an interview last week.

But it soon became clear that that wasn’t the case.

Leanne suffers from Foreign Accent Syndrome. There have only been 62 cases of the syndrome reported since 1941, making it one of the rarest conditions in the world.

The other cases of the syndrome are just as baffling.

In 1999, American woman Tiffany Roberts woke up from a stroke with an English accent. Tiffancy says that people accuse her of lying when she says she was born in Indiana.

In 2009, 18-year-old British man George Harris suffered a brain hemorrhage while traveling in Slovakia and woke up with a thick Russian accent. George had lived in Russia for a period of time when he was young but said he had always sounded British when he was growing up.

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And in 2010, UK woman Sarah Colwill – who had suffered from chronic migraines for years – developed a rather coarse, almost caricature-like Chinese accent.

Foreign Accent Syndrome usually develops from brain damage but there are also a couple of cases where the change has occurred following a severe migraine. Sufferers of the syndrome usually wake up speaking with the accent of a language they’ve never learned – and it’s something that continues to baffle scientists even after 70 years of research.

This from The Conversation:

Foreign accent syndrome is caused by brain damage which impairs the control of the muscles used to produce speech.

Research has shown people with foreign accent syndrome nearly always have trouble producing vowels. Brain damage affects their ability to control their tongue movements. There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may “undershoot” or “overshoot” their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent.

Another commonly reported feature of foreign accent syndrome is a problem with the stress pattern of words and rhythm and intonation of sentences (prosody). People with foreign accent syndrome may speak slowly, separate out syllables and say each one with equal stress – for example, “banana” as “bar-nar-nar” rather than “buhNARnuh”.

So, the problems with muscle movement and coordination cause in changes to the way the speech sounds. When the new speech sounds are similar to those of an existing accent, the speaker can be perceived to be speaking with a foreign accent. People with foreign accent syndrome don’t speak with all the features of a foreign accent, but there are enough things about the way they speak to make it seem as though they have a different accent.

The stories of people suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome are definitely interesting. For people looking from the outside, it’s intriguing; the kind of thing you shouldn’t laugh at, but maybe do.

The sad reality for those who suffer from the condition is that they often become withdrawn and depressed when they realise that they are likely to never regain their previous ‘voice’. Sufferers are forced to explain to people they’ve known forever why they no longer speak as they used to, and they have daily battles with strangers who just don’t understand.

Leanne Rowe used to be a bus driver but now on the rare occasions she goes out in public she hardly ever speaks for fear of embarrassment.

“It makes me so angry because I am Australian… I am not French, [though] I do not have anything against the French people,” Leanne told the ABC. Leanne’s  daughter Kate Mundy said: “It has affected her life greatly. People see the funny side of it, and think its really interesting, I mean, it is interesting but I’ve seen the impact on mum’s life.”

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