Speech is something we do without thinking much about. It is believed On average, a woman speaks about 20,000 words a day while a man says about 7,000 words a day.
Dr Martin Kaddumukasa, a neurophysician at Mulago National Referral Hospital, says speech is controlled in the brain which has two speech centres, one is the Broca’s area located in the front, middle-bottom of the left hemisphere and Wernicke’s area located in the back middle-bottom of the left hemisphere. These centres are connected by a tract of nerves tract called the arcuate fasciculus.
Broca’s area is the motor association cortex and is partially responsible for the muscle movement of your mouth when you form words, while Wernicke’s area helps with understanding language.
When one speaks, these fibres transfer what has been said to the cortex for interpretation then sends back to the motor centre.
“So when one speaks, two things are going to happen, your lips will move and you will understand what you are saying. This is known as receptive and expressive speech,” Dr Kaddumukasa says.
Once anything interferes or forms a blockage between these two centres, we get a deficit in the speech or total loss of speech. If there is a problem in the motor centre, then somebody is unable to speak; they are mute which is medically known as expressive aphasia, which happens when there is a brain injury, a problem with the vessels, stroke, trauma, brain hemorrhage, tumours, or effects of epileptic seizures.
Alternatively, when there is damage to the upper portion of the temporal lobe, just behind the auditory cortex, a person is able to express themselves but they are using the words inappropriately or form their own words when the right ones fail to come out properly. In some cases, people will change their intonation and expression when there is a disorganisaton of the speech centres.
There are a number of disorders that can affect our ability to speak and communicate, ranging from saying sounds incorrectly to being completely unable to speak or understand speech. Among those disorders is the rare phenomenon known as the Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS).
Dr Kaddumukasa is skeptical about the disorder and believes, accents most time come as a learned process of the brain.
“One’s brain might have been exposed to pronouncing words or letters differently, over time it will become their normal way of speaking,” he explains.
However, Stefanie Keulen, a neuroscientist from the Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies, Clinical and Experimental Neurolinguistics, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium, defines it as a rare motor speech disorder which causes patients to speak their native language with an accent which is perceived as non-native by speakers of the same speech community.
This “non-nativeness” is the result of suprasegmental and/or segmental changes, are the consequence of damage to the central nervous system.
Often, the cause is stroke or brain trauma affecting the language dominant areas of the brain, such as the left (pre)frontal, temporal and/or parietal region, the rolandic and perisylvian area, as well as the insular region. It has also been noted that the disorder is not only caused by acute neurological damage but it can also be a result of a psychological/psychiatric disorder.
In 2015, a former American beauty queen reportedly went to sleep with a headache and woke up with a British accent, despite never having left the United States. She still sounds English four years later.
Mother-of-seven Michelle Myers, 46, from Phoenix, Arizona, has an accent so strong that her daughter Rose, 17, calls her ‘mummy,’ rather than ‘mommy’ - leading people to think she was raised abroad.
Myers was diagnosed with FAS in 2015, after going to bed with “a splitting headache and when I woke up, my voice was that of a completely different person.” Myers says she found it really difficult to begin with and people would think it was a joke. “It was hard, because I was really struggling,” she added.
The BBC, reported the story of Julie Matthias who suddenly found that she no longer speaks with an English accent but sounds French or Chinese instead. Matthias thinks her experience can be pinned down to a car accident that was followed by blinding migraines, often accompanied by debilitating body pain.
It is not clear exactly why the car accident caused that shift. Despite ongoing hospital visits, no neurologist has yet been able to pin down a definite cause of her migraines or her strange accent.
Can you recover from FAS?
FAS may continue for months or years or it may disappear spontaneously or progressively.
However, there are stories about people who needed speech and cognitive therapies. This is because this syndrome can have a major psychological impact on those afflicted by it as time goes by without them recovering their true voice. Sometimes, they may not even remember it.
The usual treatments in these cases are therapies and linguistic techniques that allowed those affected to recover part of or the totality of their diction prior to the onset of the syndrome.
In addition, speech therapists use accent reduction techniques and teach people to move their lips or jaw in specific ways.
In 2010, scientists from the University of Malaga combined these rehabilitation exercises with donepezil, a drug commonly used to treat Alzheimer’s.
This dual treatment yielded outstanding recovery symptoms in a patient affected by the disease. Other techniques may include masked auditory feedback, delayed auditory feedback, and auditory feedback with frequency change.