July 4, 2006

"I've lost my identity, because I never talked like this before."

Foreign accent syndrome.


Sanjay said...

THis disorder will be familiar to listeners of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, who have found it amusing as hell for years [OK, I knwo it's not supposed to be funny, they should have given it a different name, some kind of partial-speech-mucular-defect thing]. I still crack up remembering Tom reacting to hearing about a guy who got rear-ended and all of a sudden developed it: something along the lines of "You mean to tell me this guy's just driving along, he gets rear-ended, and [put on amazingly obnoxious false French accent] all-ov-a-soidDAIN he haz beGAIN to tok like ZIS?" Classic.

Happy fourth, all.

Tibore said...

You can actually hear Ms. Walker in the BBC interview video clip on that site.

She does note that "everbody picks it up in their own ear differently". In her separations of certain syllables ("I can speak, but very bad-lee"(stressed last syllable, dragged out "-lee" instead of "-ly") she does indeed sound Jamaican, but in her pronounciation of the "O" sound, she sounds Canadian ("oooout an' abooot", for example; no, that's not an actual quote, just an illustration). But in between, really, it's not like her accent goes here and there.

You know, it's weird how humans complete patterns in our heads. For the "Jamaicanization" of her accent, all she's really doing is drawing out some syllables and not quite hitting her native accent's intonations, but it's coming off as Jamaican, even though there's only hints of it here and there. And I think (I'm not positive) that the "Quebecois" part of her vocalizations comes from just not hitting the proper balance for her native accent's "Oh" sound, yet, it sounds so Canadian to folks like me, but yet again, it's only a hint, not a broad, obvious change. To me, the term "Foreign Accent Syndrom" says as much about the listener as it does about the affected speaker. There is a definite accent change, but the characterization of the differences as sounding "foreign" is a judgement on the listener's part.

Eli Blake said...

That is just plain nuts. In our church (yes, in a very isolated, rural part of the west at that) we send virtually every one of our young men and a substantial number of our young women out on two year missions. When they come back, most of them have an accent. They lose it after a few weeks back home. If they went to a foreign mission, they still know the language for a few years, but slip back into things easily and none of them have an identity crisis.

Randy said...

Upon reading the post, my first thought was of Patricia Neal after her stroke. As I remember, her husband at the time, Raold Dahl, taught her to speak again and she picked up his English accent. I could not help wondering if the nurses in the hospital had any of the accents this woman has now.

I know that many Japanese claim that Japanese who have spent some time outside the country speak differently upon their return. One of my friends encountered this idea for years after his return to Japan.

amba said...

If they went to a foreign mission, they still know the language for a few years, but slip back into things easily and none of them have an identity crisis.

I knew a young Japanese man who spent two years in an American prep school. When he went home he couldn't bring himself to speak Japanese, because he felt as if he was lying or being hypocritical or devious. In Japanese apparently you can't say "I want this or that" in a direct, American way -- you have to use some roundabout locution focused on "you." My friend was unable to speak at all, and wound up briefly in the hospital. I met him a year or two after, and was fascinated and honored to be his confidant about this. (He went on both to master being a proper Japanese, and also to live and work for a Japanese bank in England and Spain. He became quite good at the transitions, but was ambivalent about never being fully at home in his own culture yet also enjoying being able to escape it. It was particularly hard for him to find someone to marry.)

I also recall hearing a fascinating story about an American man who was an international traveler and spoke fluent French and Chinese. He was in a car accident and when he woke up, he could only speak Chinese. Are different languages stored in different parts of the brain? The Romance languages seem to go in the same part of mine. When I learned some Romanian it seems to have landed on top of my meager store of Spanish, so when I try to speak Spanish, at first Romanian comes out.

Slightly off topic, I know.

Tibore said...

"He was in a car accident and when he woke up, he could only speak Chinese."

Amba, if you happen to run across a source of literature for that, I'd loooove to know it. The other day, a couple of friends and I were shooting the bull about the different sort of brain... uh, "computations" would be the only good description... necessary to handle and interpret in real time the nuances of a tonal language like Mandarin or Cantonese as opposed to handling a phoneme-rich language like English. To read a study of one person who knew both English and one of the Chinese languages and suddenly could only speak one of them would be a great read, especially if it dove into the neurology of language.

Randy said...

amba & tibore: When I was in college(studying Chinese, in fact), I remember hearing that people who did well learning Chinese almost always excelled at mathematics as well. I have no idea if it is true or if that info. was based on any serious study - but your story just reminded me of it.

michael farris said...

"Are different languages stored in different parts of the brain?"

Yes and no.I'm very hesistant to talk about 'where' the language is stored.

To simplify (and probably distort) things, I'd say the brain stores one's first language(s) in one way and all others acquired in a different way.

IIRC this is true even when a person becomes dominant in a language they learned after puberty (say a teenage immigrant who comes to know the language of their new country better than their parents' home language). Their brain still processes it as a second language - certain kinds of brain storage/activation are reserved for the language(s) one learned as a small child.

Romance languages are similar enough that the associations by which individual words are stored in your memory are going to be cross-wired and constantly getting in each others way. I have the same problem with Slavic languages.