Kay Russel, 49, is from Gloucestershire, England, but you would swear she was from Southern France. Kay had a severe migraine attack last year that left her with a neurological speech impediment known as foreign accent syndrome (FAS). Even though she has lived in England all her life, and has only visited France a few times, her new accent betrays her nationality, and she finds herself being treated by strangers, telephone customer service people and job interviewers as a foreigner.
Kay has been a chronic migraine sufferer for 20 years. In January of 2010 she had a debilitating migraine attack, the aftereffects of which left her with slurred speech for two weeks. When she finally regained her ability to speak clearly again, she found herself speaking in a distinctly French accent, although others have mentioned that she sounded Russian, Hungarian or possibly from Transylvania.
Like other FAS sufferers, Kay now suffers from deep depression, stating that she no longer feels like herself, and that she feels out of place in her own home town in Southwest England. A former sales executive, Kay has quit her job and is looking for new employment. Watching an old video of herself before the life-changing migraine attack, she comments, “When I see that, I see the person I used to be. It’s not my voice I miss. I would love to have my own voice back, but it goes way, way, way beyond my voice.”
Kay is one of only 60 people around the world who have suffered from foreign accent syndrome, which is caused by stroke, migraine attacks and brain damage. There is no cure for FAS, but symptoms can disappear in weeks, months or years.
Other people who currently struggle with FAS are Sarah Colwill, a fellow Brit, and Karen Butler, from Oregon.
- Like Kay, Sarah Colwill also experienced neurological damage following a migraine attack, which left her with FAS; speaking with a Chinese accent, even her own family doesn’t recognize her voice on their answering machines. Friends often hang up on her when she calls, thinking she is a prank caller. Sarah was born in Germany, but moved to Plymouth, England as a small child. ’I have never been to China. I just want my own voice back but I don’t know if I ever will. I moved to Plymouth when I was 18 months old so I’ve always spoken like a local.”
- Karen Butler, a 56-year-old lifelong Oregonian, went in for dental surgery one day and woke up with a foreign accent that has been described as Irish, Scottish, South African with a bit of Northern England and Australian mixed in. But unlike Kay and Sarah from England, Karen has a much more positive outlook on the whole experience, even going as far as to say that it’s cured her of her social anxiety, joking that when people ask her, “Oh, you have such a lovely accent- where did you get it?” she replies that she got it from her dentist. “With a sense of humor, you can face anything,” she said.
- Other incidents of foreign accent syndrome include another U.K. resident who began speaking in a Jamaican dialect following a stroke, and a Michigan woman who mysteriously started speaking in a thick Cockney brogue, having had no medical trauma.
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