Foreign accent syndrome and speech understanding

Maybe you’ve heard about people who, due to a stroke or accident, can no longer speak or understand speech normally. Aphasia is a condition where damage (usually from stroke or head trauma) to particular regions of the brain causes a person to lose specific language production and comprehension abilities. Aphasia studies are remarkable, and have taught us much about how language works inside the brain. Recently, however, I learned of a strange condition kind of similar to, but not as debilitating as aphasia: Foreign accent syndrome.

Here’s the article: The curious case of people who can’t stop speaking in foreign accents.

You should read the full piece, but a few highlights follow.

“Foreign accent syndrome (FAS for short) is a real thing, though it’s very rare — fewer than 200 cases diagnosed since it was first described in 1907. It may sound like it’s just a delusion or fantasy, but fewer than 10 percent of cases have a psychological basis (for example, related to schizophrenia). Nearly all of the rest are of neurological origin: They are caused by damage or impairment to a specific area of the brain.”

“The short explanation is that FAS (possibly excepting the few psychological cases) is a disorder of speech planning and execution.”

“Naturally, when we hear speech tweaked on one or several of those parameters, we associate it with an accent that has a similar feature set. And if we hear an accent that sounds somehow different but we’re not sure, we make our best guess at what it is. The less familiar we are with an accent, the less we’re likely to notice things that aren’t quite right about it: Many Americans can’t tell Australian accents from English ones even though people from England and Australia have no trouble telling the two apart. Researchers studying cases of FAS have sometimes tested samples of the speech with listeners who didn’t know its origin to see if they could identify where it was from, and, unsurprisingly, opinions varied considerably. But when they tested “controls” — samples of native speakers with unimpaired speech from several countries — listeners couldn’t always identify their accents accurately either.”

Videos of people with FAS:

Texan woman with “British English” accent
English woman with “Chinese” accent

What does the author mean by feature set in the quote above? Each language has its own unique set of phonemes or word-distinguishing units of sound (called its phonemic inventory). This set is pulled from a larger set of all possible speech sounds. We recognize different languages and accents by these feature sets. And yet, the FAS article had me thinking about our general ineptitude when it comes to identifying accents. Because the speech of the person with FAS in the first video is close enough to a British English accent from an American English point of view, we lump it in that category…while to a native British English speaker, they’re noticeably dissimilar. Even in our native accent, speech can be hard to disambiguate. The recent viral “Laurel/Yanny” debate is a good example.

“Laurel”/“Yanny” makes you wonder how we understand each other at all. I’d say that pragmatics, i.e. context, plays a vital role. When communication is stripped of context, it’s significantly more difficult to interpret. My current work has made this very clear to me. We’re listening to and transcribing 2-to-4-second audio clips of users’ commands (and other speech) to their smartphone voice assistants. Knowing the contexts of “voice assistant-directed speech” and “things one might want to do on their phone” helps some. But outside of that, because the sound clips are so short and we’re not actually there, interacting with the speaker, a part of the conversation – it’s often a challenge to resolve (i.e. accurately transcribe) certain categories of words. Proper nouns are especially tricky. Contacts’ names, product or app names, names of unfamiliar towns and musicians, et cetera.  If we were face-to-face with the speaker, we’d have the entire conversational, situational, and interpersonal background at our disposal, which helps resolve such unknowns. Successful communication must rely on many factors. And language doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

What is linguistics, and what do linguists do?


I love patterns. They’re how we learn and evolve, and they’re everywhere.

Here’s a pattern for you.
When I tell someone new that I do linguistics, their response often goes like this:

Nod and/or smile and/or give small verbal acknowledgment.
Slight awkward pause.
“And what is linguistics again exactly?”[1]

People know that linguistics has to do with language, but beyond that, things get fuzzy. My goal with this post is to unfuzz (defuzz? disfuzz?) the basics of the field.

Most succinctly put, “Linguistics is the scientific study of language”. Like all sciences, linguistics is about patterns. Identifying them, analyzing them, making generalizations about them, making predictions (or hypotheses) from the generalizations, and then testing the predictions. What does that mean more specifically?

Well, what is language? Language is a conventionalized and arbitrary pairing of form and meaning. The form is usually sound, but it can also be gesture – in the case of sign language. There are many levels at which we might observe and analyze such form-meaning pairings, and these levels comprise the main subfields of the linguistics discipline. I’ll introduce each subfield through a couple of questions:

  1. How do our mouth, tongue, and throat produce consonants versus vowels? How do we segment a continuous stream of speech into words, so that we may understand it? How do we perceive sounds as belonging to our native language(s) versus other languages?

The study of speech sounds is Phonetics, and speech patterns, Phonology.

  1. What is going on when we add the prefix un- to the word happy, and the resulting word (unhappy) means the opposite of happy? How do words like steampunktoberfest, appletini, or totes come about? Why is the plural for cat cats, while the plural for mouse is mice?

The study of word structure and formation is Morphology.

  1. Why do we say the red car in English (with the adjective before the noun), when French has la voiture rouge and Spanish el coche rojo (both with the adjective after the noun)? Why is the interpretation of John saw the man with a telescope ambiguous?

The study of sentence structure is Syntax.

  1. How do we know that a poodle is a type of dog, or that if something is alive it cannot also be dead, or that Maddie plays the drums like a rock star must imply that Maddie plays the drums?

The study of meaning is Semantics.

  1. Why do we understand that it is annoying to say “Yes” (and take no subsequent action) in answer to your dinner partner’s question “Can you pass the salt”?

The study of discourse in context is Pragmatics.


Once we’ve discussed what linguistics is, the question that inevitably follows looks something akin to: where does studying language patterns get you in the real world? What do linguists actually do for a living? Until more recently, linguists were generally constrained to teaching and researching within academia. Many still do follow that path. However, in the last couple decades, various industrial sectors have realized the necessity of employing people with serious language knowledge. Here is a short list of possible careers outside of academia for those with a linguistics background:

  • Computational Linguist (works on improving computers’ ability to “understand” and generate human language – often in machine learning contexts)
  • Conlanger for Movie/TV Industry (invents new languages based on attested linguistic principles)
  • Data Scientist (statistically analyzes large amounts of data to provide business insights)
  • Field Linguist/Researcher (documents endangered or dying languages – although often from a university position)
  • Forensic Linguist (analyzes legal and judicial language; provides linguistic evidence in legal proceedings)
  • Lexicographer (builds dictionaries)
  • Naming/Branding Consultant
  • Nonprofit sociolinguistic research
  • Second or Foreign Language Instructor
  • Speech-Language Pathologist (diagnoses and treats communication, voice, and swallowing disorders)
  • Translator & Interpreter

Here are a few cool examples of actual people using their linguistics training in the real world:

One of my acquaintances is an interactional sociolinguist at the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on sociopolitical and scientific topics like aging, criminal justice, and climate change. FrameWorks investigates the language used in talk about these subjects, and teaches ways of reframing each issue. The woman I know manages the Institute’s Learning Unit, where she organizes professional learning events for advocates who want to change particular social dialogues.

Another friend of mine is a Speech-language Pathologist, or SLP. She works with veterans at the VA Hospital in San Francisco. Her patients have swallowing conditions, aphasia, and other disorders that interfere with speaking or understanding. The SLP path requires a master’s in Communicative Disorders/Speech-Language Pathology. Although it doesn’t require a degree in linguistics, my friend has this too, and she says that it has lent her a deeper understanding of the disorders she’s trying to treat, as well as the subtleties involved in clinician-patient communication.

David Peterson is neither a friend nor an acquaintance, although I wish he was one. He is a conlanger who created Dothraki and Valerian for the HBO series “Game of Thrones”. Dothraki and Valerian are not just random sets of made-up words. They are full languages, with their own phonology, morphology, and syntax. For example, to form a question in Dothraki – as in Hash yer ray tih zhavors chiorisi anni (“Have you seen my lady’s dragon?”) – one must include a word whose main purpose is to formulate questions, hash. English lacks a single separate word with just this function; instead, we use multifunctional auxiliary verbs like do, be and have, or rising intonation. French on the other hand does have a word with this unique function: est-ce que (subject-verb inversion and rising intonation are other possible strategies). Conlanging for film basically started in the eighties with Marc Okrand, the inventor of Vulcan and Klingon, used in the Star Trek movies. With sci-fi/fantasy shows becoming more and more involved these days, the opportunity for such constructed language work seems to be growing.

And then, take a watch of these videos. Anna Marie Trester, author of the Career Linguist blog, has interviewed and recorded multiple linguist folks (me among them!) working in different areas of industry.


I’d like to wrap up with some historical and contextual nuggets about the field.

Linguistics termed as such, and as its own independent discipline, is relatively new. It arose at the beginning of the twentieth century; the University of California (Berkeley) formed America’s first “Department of Linguistics” in 1901. Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield were two prominent linguists early on. There was also structuralism or structural linguistics which dealt with signs, syntax, and other formal units of language. Main characters included Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky devised his generative theory of language and Universal Grammar, and the discipline really took off. Chomsky is thus usually known as the “father of modern linguistics”.

Pre-twentieth century, philology (the study of ancient languages and texts), and then comparative philology (studies comparing European languages and language groups) existed from the middle ages through the 1800s. The first formal study of language comes from India; in the fifth century BC a man named Pāṇini categorized Sanskrit consonants and vowels, word classes like nouns and verbs, and other patterns.

One curious aspect of linguistics is that it has borrowed a good bit of terminology (and corresponding concepts) from biology. My brother is getting his PhD in lichenology, a little-known subfield of biology, and it’s super fun for us to chat about our respective fields because there’s an immediate overlap of understanding. For instance, linguistics uses the terms root, stem, tree to describe words and phrase structures. It adopts jargon like morphology, genealogy, diachronic, convergent and divergent evolution. A fascinating “language as organism”[2] metaphor appears frequently.

Lastly, linguistics is a small field. Even large university departments usually count no more than twenty to twenty-five graduate students at a time. Meeting another linguist randomly, outside of dedicated school or work contexts is, for me at least, a rare treat. Meeting people who want to talk about language, however, is wonderfully common! And understandably so – it applies to us all. I hope my post has provided a sprinkling of insight into this universal human subject.


Please check back soon for upcoming content – planned posts include a linguist’s perspective on speech errors, an explanation of the nifty phenomenon of metathesis (where sounds, syllables, or words are switched around), and summaries of Japanese and Korean writing systems.


[1] Another frequent response is: “So how many languages do you speak?” See this great post addressing the topic:

[2] Janse, M., Verlinden, A., & Uhlenbeck, E.M. (1998). Productivity and Studies in General and Descriptive Linguistics in Honor of E.M. Uhlenbeck. Trends in linguistics, 116, 197.