Skip to main content

Car crash leaves Australian woman with French accent

By Wilfred Chan, for CNN
June 21, 2013 -- Updated 0015 GMT (0815 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Car crash eight years ago left Aussie woman speaking with a French accent
  • Foreign accent syndrome is extremely rare; only a few dozen known cases worldwide
  • Researchers say condition is caused by damage to brain's motor functions
  • Therapy, new treatments may help patients' accents return to normal

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Eight years ago, Leanne Rowe was in a serious car crash that resulted in a broken back and jaw. But when the former bus driver and Australian Army Reserve member recovered, she was left with something completely unexpected: a French accent.

Rowe, who is now unable to speak with her original Aussie accent, said she has become a "recluse," and often has her daughter speak for her in public.

"I am not French," Rowe told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Sunday. "It makes me so angry because I am Australian."

How can this occur?

Foreign accent syndrome is an extremely rare condition in which brain injuries change a person's speech patterns, giving them a different accent. The first known case was reported in 1941, when a Norwegian woman suffered shrapnel injuries to the brain during a German bombing run -- and started speaking with a German accent. Since then there have been only a few dozen reported cases.

"It's an impairment of motor control," said Dr. Karen Croot, one of the few experts in foreign accent syndrome. "Speech is one of the most complicated things we do, and there are a lot of brain centers involved in coordinating a lot of moving parts. If one or more of them are damaged, that can affect the timing, melody and tension of their speech.

"In a sense it's not a communication impairment -- a person can make themselves understood perfectly well."

But foreign accent syndrome can be psychologically difficult for sufferers.

"There can be a lack of understanding of how difficult it can be for the person with the acquired accent," said Croot. "There's sort of a response of, 'get rid of the accent, stop putting it on, go back.' If you think about your own accent, it's a part of your identity. Changing your accent projects a different identity."

Severe migraine gives British woman Chinese accent

In 2010, Sarah Colwill, a 35-year-old British woman, began speaking with what sounded like a Chinese accent after suffering a serious migraine.

"To think I am stuck with this Chinese accent is getting me down," she said. "My voice has started to annoy me now. It is not my voice."

Yet other patients don't mind as much.

"One of the ladies I worked with was an English speaker who started sounding Irish. She reported feeling positive about it. For her it was sort of an interesting new persona."

Other patients eventually see their speech return to normal. "I worked on a case of an Australian who was in a car accident, and consequently had an American accent. That accent went away about 5 months later," said Croot.

According to Croot, sufferers may try to regain their former accents by doing exercises. "They need to practice repositioning their mouth, just as they would practice a tennis serve. It's motor skill practice."

Treatments used for similar motor speech disorders, apraxia of speech and dysarthria, have also been deployed for patients of foreign accent syndrome in the last few years with "positive" results.

Rowe, however, has decided to stop trying to "hold in" her accent. "For me, it was not healthy," she said.

"It has affected her life greatly," her daughter explained. "People see the funny side of it, and think it's really interesting... but I've seen the impacts on mum's life."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Pakistan Taliban say the school attack was revenge for the killing of children in a military offensive -- but they are being pressed by defections to ISIS.
A group that claims it hacked Sony Pictures has posted a public threat against moviegoers who see Sony's "The Interview."
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
The gunman behind the deadly siege in Sydney this week was not on a security watch list, and Australia's Prime Minister wants to know why.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Bestselling author Marjorie Liu had set her sights on being a lawyer, but realized it wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
CNN's Matthew Chance looks into an HRW report saying Russia has "legalized discrimination against LGBT people."
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 0212 GMT (1012 HKT)
The Sydney siege has brought home some troubling truths to Australians. They are not immune to what are often called "lone-wolf" terror attacks.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 0012 GMT (0812 HKT)
A social media campaign condemning Islamophobia under the hashtag #illridewithyou has taken off after Sydney hostage siege.
Bill Cosby has kept quiet as sexual assault allegations mounted against him, but his wife, Camille, finally spoke out in defense of her husband.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
China-bound AirAsia flight turns back to Bangkok after passenger throws water over crew member.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
It takes Nepalese eye doctor, Sanduk Ruit about five minutes to change someone's life.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
This epic journey crosses 13,000 kilometers, eight countries over 21 days. Find out where.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT