A Texas native woke up one day sounding a lot like the fictional British nanny Mary Poppins. Michelle Myers is a mom of seven and ex-beauty queen who suffers from a bizarre condition called Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS).
FAS is an extremely rare speech disorder that affects speech patterns in such a way that listeners may think the patient has changed accents. Only 60 cases have been recorded since it was first named and described in 1907 by a French neurologist called Pierre Marie, but whenever a case is reported, it receives a lot of media attention.
Myers, who now lives in Buckeye, Arizona, has found herself speaking with a different accent three times in the past seven years after going to bed with a crippling headache, but English is the only one that stuck. The first time she woke with an Irish accent and the second time she sounded Australian, with each episode lasting for around a week.
The US native has spoken with an English accent for two years now, despite never having left the country. She told reporters at ABC affiliate KNXV, everyone only “hears Mary Poppins”.
The majority of people who develop the condition do so following a stroke or traumatic brain injury. FAS has also been linked to multiple sclerosis and psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar. Occasionally, there are no signs of neural damage.
As for Myers, doctors believe it was caused by Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). EDS is a condition you’re born with, which results in easy bruising, ruptured blood vessels, and painful joints.
"Some people think it’s physiological; others think it’s psychological,” Myers said of FAS.
“People like me – we don’t care which one it is. We just really want to be taken seriously and if it is something that’s going to hurt me, help me."
According to the University of Texas Dallas, the timing, intonation, and tongue placement in speech changes so that it is perceived as foreign sounding. Most people with the condition have trouble pronouncing vowels but speech remains intelligible.
The most high-profile case goes back to World War II. In 1941, a Norwegian woman called Astrid was hit with a piece of shrapnel, which caused her to speak with an accent her neighbors mistook for French or German. Given the times – Germany was, at this point, an occupying force in Norway – this did not make her very popular in her native country.
Interestingly, research suggests the accent change is subjective and depends on the expectations of the listener. One person might think someone with FAS sounds German, while another thinks they sound French.