An Australian Asian woman who woke up from surgery on her tonsils, speaking in what seems to be an Irish accent, has been documenting her experience on TikTok.
The 27 year old Brisbane dentist, An Gie Yen, decided to post regular videos of her new accent when people dubbed her a hoax. Otherwise well, Yen was sent home to recover from her surgery, with doctors suggesting her vocal chords would heal over time.
As her story travelled across the world, experts recognized that Yen – who has never been to Ireland – is suffering from the very rare condition, known as "foreign accent syndrome".
First reported by a French neurologist, Pierre Marie in 1907, foreign accent syndrome usually occurs after a stroke but can also develop from head trauma, migraines, seizures or surgery to the mouth or face. It results in the person losing their natural accent and speaking with a different pitch, intonation and word pronunciation.
About 100 cases of foreign accent syndrome have been reported worldwide, and it has been found to be more common in women than men.
In 2013, the BBC showed a documentary about a woman from Devon whose “Chinese” accent resulted from a severe migraine. In 2016, a Texan woman was diagnosed with foreign accent syndrome when she spoke in an English accent following jaw surgery.
Experts say that the speech patterns that are part of this extremely rare speech disorder are not a real foreign accent but a damaged form of the person’s native accent. Even Yen admits that what appears to be her Irish – or even Northern Irish accent – seems to come and go a little yet it is distinctly different to how she spoke before she had her tonsils removed. She can even sing higher notes than she could before her surgery.
Nick Miller, emeritus professor of motor speech disorders at Newcastle University in England says that "the notion that sufferers speak in a foreign accent is something that is in the ear of the listener, rather than the mouth of the speaker. It is simply that the rhythm and pronunciation of speech has changed."
Researchers have found that the condition can have neurological or psychological origins. This distinction is important for clinicians to decide the most appropriate form of speech therapy to pursue. Some people with foreign accent syndrome find that their speech patterns revert to normal over time.
Meanwhile, the Australian news agency, news.com.au reports that Yen is planning to get an MRI and blood tests and to see a neurologist on the advice of her ear, nose and throat specialist to check that she doesn’t have any structural neurological reasons for her new accent.