Tag Archives: accents

Accents away from Accent

This weekend I went on a crazy, fun, whirlwind trip to London along with Shelby, Kendall, Jamie, Alyssa, and Merry. While we were only there for a day and half, we managed to see Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, London Bridge, and most of the other major famous sites. As we raced all over the city in the underground, I kept accidentally saying “pardonne-moi” and “désolé” to everyone I bumped into. Only, for the first time in weeks, everyone around us was speaking English. But, even though we all speak English, the way that the locals around us pronounced words and phrases was still different than our own speech.


Of course, from the moment we arrived in England, we were sounded by English accents. Several of us found ourselves fascinated by these accents and, when we were safely out of earshot, we even did our best to imitate them. Yesterday morning as I sat on the train back to Paris, I decided to try to find out what it is about our brain that allows to recognize, use, and understand different accented versions of the same language.

Westminster Abbey

Determining exactly what parts of the brain allow us to understand unfamiliar accents is a difficult task, but there is a growing body of research on this topic. Many of the studies on accent comprehension use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect changes in brain activity and as subjects listen to sounds or sentences in different accents (Ghazi-Saidi et al., 2015).

A recent review of this research and found that other researchers have identified areas like the left inferior frontal gyrus, the insula, and the superior temporal sulci and gyri as having higher activity when listening to accented speakers produce sounds (Callan et al., 2014; Adank et al., 2015).Interestingly, many of these brain areas are the same regions that have been identified as important for understanding foreign languages (Perani and Abutalebi, 2005; Hesling et al., 2012).Some of these areas that are important for understanding unfamiliar accents – including the insula, motor cortex and premotor cortex – have also been implicated in the production of these accents (Adank et al., 2012a; Callan et al., 2014; Ghazi-Saidi et al., 2015). 

Investigating the production of accented speech is also an exciting field of study. Interestingly, one of the main ways we have learned about accent production is through case studies of patients with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS). FAS is a fascinating motor speech disorder where patients speak in a different accent than they originally used, typically following brain damage (Keulen et al., 2016). This condition was actually first identified here in Paris by Pierre Marie¹, a French neurologist (Keulen et al., 2016). After recovering from a brain hemorrhage, Marie’s patient had an Alsatian French accent instead of his original Parisian one (Marie, 1907). Since then, nearly 200 cases of this rare disease have been identified (Mariën et al., 2019).

Pierre Marie

However, it is hard to draw conclusions from individual case studies with just one patient. In a recent metanalysis (a procedure where data from other studies is combined and analyzed), Mariën et al. looked at 112 different published cases of FAS to draw larger conclusions about this rare disease. The authors were particularly interested in cases of FAS that occurred after a stroke, but they analyzed case studies from patients with all different kinds of brain damage.

To review these cases, Mariën et al. first compiled published case studies that reported the cause and symptoms of a patient’s FAS from Pierre Marie’s case in 1907 through October 2016. They then calculated and analyzed the demographic, anatomical, and symptomatic features of these FAS patients to look for larger trends across the different cases.

The authors found that there are statistically significantly more female patients (68% of cases) than male patients in these 112 FAS cases. Additionally, a significant and overwhelming majority (97%) of cases were in adults. In more than half the patients (53%) FAS was present following a stroke.

For those patients who developed FAS following a stroke, the authors also analyzed where in the brain their vascular damage was. The most commonly damaged brain areas (60% of vascular FAS patients) were the primary motor cortex, premotor cortex and basal ganglia which are all important for the physical ability to produce voluntary speech (Brown, Schneider, & Lidsky, 1997). The authors also found that 13% of these vascular FAS patients had damage in the insula, an area that has also been identified as important for accented speech production in studies of healthy subjects (Ghazi-Saidi et al., 2015).

The Insula

I think FAS is a fascinating disorder, but is important to remember that, like any case studies, these reports have a limited ability to tell us about how healthy people produce accented speech. The naturally occurring brain damage in these FAS patients is not necessarily localized, and other brain areas besides for the primary lesion location could have been affected by the damage. Furthermore, there are some cases of psychological (as opposed to neurological) FAS which complicates our understanding of the onset of this disease (Keulen et al., 2016).

While there is still a lot to learn about understanding how we construct and comprehend accented speech. Studies of FAS patients, particularly large metanalyses like this one, have just begun to identify some of the key brain areas that are reliably indicated in accent production. These findings provide a good starting point for future researchers to analyze these brain areas further and possibly study their role in healthy patients’ accents, which can help us all understand each other a little better.



1 – As a side note for my NBB 301 classmates: Pierre Marie is the “Marie” in Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a glial disease that affects Schwann cells. He was also a student of Jean-Martin Charcot and was one of the people depicted in the famous painting A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière that we saw at the Musée de l’Histoire de la Médecine today.



Westminster Abbey: taken by me

Pierre Marie: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a4/PierreMarie.jpg/230px-PierreMarie.jpg

Insula: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Sobo_1909_633.png



Adank P, Davis M, Hagoort P (2012a). Neural dissociation in processing noise and accent in spoken language comprehension. Neuropsychologia50, 77–84. 

Adank P, Nuttall HE., Banks B, & Kennedy-Higgins D (2015). Neural bases of accented speech perception. Frontiers in human neuroscience9, 558. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00558

Brown L, Schneider JS, & Lidsky TI (1997). Sensory and cognitive functions of the basal ganglia. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 7, 157–163.

Callan D, Callan A, & Jones, JA (2014). Speech motor brain regions are differentially recruited during perception of native and foreign-accented phonemes for first and second language listeners. Frontiers in neuroscience8, 275. doi:10.3389/fnins.2014.00275 

Ghazi-Saidi L, Dash T, Ansaldo AI (2015). How native-like can you possibly get: fMRI evidence in a pair of linguistically close languages, special issue: language beyond words: the neuroscience of accent. Front. Neurosci. 9:587.

Hesling I, Dilharreguy B, Bordessoules M, Allard M. (2012). The neural processing of second language comprehension modulated by the degree of proficiency: a listening connected speech FMRI study. Open Neuroimag. J. 6, 1–11.

Keulen S, Verhoeven J, De Witte E, De Page L, Bastiaanse R, & Mariën P (2016). Foreign Accent Syndrome As a Psychogenic Disorder: A Review. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 10, 168.

Marie P (1907). Un cas d’anarthrie transitatoire par lésion de la zone lenticulaire. In P. Marie Travaux et Memoires, Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société Médicale des Hôpitaux; 1906: Vol. IParis: Masson pp. 153–157.

Mariën P, Keulen S, Verhoeven J (2019) Neurological Aspects of Foreign Accent Syndrome in Stroke Patients, Journal of Communication Disorders, 77: 94-113,

Perani D, Abutalebi J (2005). The neural basis of first and second language processing. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 15, 202–206.

How Can You Tell I’m American?

One of the greatest challenges about being in Paris is being constantly exposed to a foreign language. I have found that fewer Parisians than expected speak English. Having studied French for a number of years, I am always eager to test my ability to communicate with native French speakers. I try to practice French in Paris as often as possible, whether it is through ordering food (obviously my most important application of the language), asking for directions, or even giving directions sometimes. Just a couple of days ago I asked a young lady for directions while on the metro and even though I knew that I had appropriately phrased my sentence in French, she responded in English. I knew that my accent had given away the fact that my native language is English, but I had expected her to respond in French. I have found myself in similar situations on many occasions. One time I was speaking French to an angry Cite Universitaire, the campus on which we are living, security guard after I had been locked out of my room and he responded in English, “I don’t speak English.” I was puzzled and in French let him know that I can speak French and he responded, “no you can’t.” I chose not to take this second encounter personally and instead began to wonder what about my speaking bothered him so much. It must have been my accent. Accent perception is such an interesting concept. We can tell what country a person is from, or even perhaps the city in which they were born not by listening to the words that they say, but by listening to the way that they say them.

Cite Universitaire (labeled as A)- where we have been living for the past 3 weeks.

In a study done by Adank et al. (2011), native monolingual Dutch speakers were played Dutch phrases in a Dutch accent and were also played the same Dutch phrases in an unfamiliar accent. While listening, the subjects’ brains were monitored using an fMRI scanner, a machine which uses magnetic imagining to monitor brain activity. The study showed that when the sound stimuli changed from the familiar to the unfamiliar accent, more of the subjects’ superior temporal gyrus (STG), a brain area involved in basic auditory language processing, became activated. The STG has also been shown to be associated with phonetic-analytic listening to speech. Perhaps this gives insight into as to why more of the STG is activated when listening to an unfamiliar accent; the brain is recruiting more cells to help analyze the phonetics of the speech because the speech is foreign. It is important to understand this because when French individuals hear me speaking French with an English accent, their STG becomes increasingly activated and they recognize that not only am I speaking in an accent, but then, through using other areas of the brain, may be able to understand what language I am speaking.

An exhibit in the Louvre Museum spelling out "love differences" in many different languages.

Whenever I’m on the metro and everyone around me is speaking French, it is difficult for me to decipher what they are saying unless they are speaking directly to me. I was curious as to the ways in which my brain would have responded to the sounds on the metro had I learned French at a younger age, but second to English. I wondered how the bilingual brain responds to language perception in general. In a study done by Archila-Suerte et al. (2012), a group of bilingual Spanish-English speaking children (whose native language is Spanish) and monolingual English speaking children were played the English syllables, “saf,” “sof,” and “suf,” while watching a silent film. These syllables were chosen because they are pronounced similarly in Spanish and would provide more insight into activation of the bilingual brain (perhaps because they may activate regions involved in perception of both languages). The subjects were told to focus on the silent film while the syllables were being played to them and simultaneously the group was analyzing the subjects’ brains using an fMRI scanner. The study was performed for young and older bilingual and monolingual children. The group found that the young monolingual and bilingual children had the STG activated (let’s call this area 1) while listening to the syllables. This data implies that the bilingual children when just beginning to learn the second language perhaps relates it to the first language and processes it in the same brain area. However, the older monolingual children still only had area 1 activated during the task whereas bilingual children had area 1 as well as other areas in the brain activated. This suggests that as bilingual children begin to master a second language more, their brain recruits other areas, other than area 1, to help distinguish between the two languages. Perhaps my brain is similar to the brain of the younger bilingual children, since I have not yet begun to master the French language. My brain may not be able to recruit other areas to help area 1 decipher a language other than English and this may be why I am unable to easily pick out French words and conversations while on the train. However, French individuals who are able to easily recognize my accent, process what my native language is, and then respond in my native language perhaps have activation of other brain areas which help the STG decipher the language. This is due to the idea that they are bilingual and no longer need to relate their second mastered language to their native language. It would be interesting to see what the combined results of the first and second study would be; to pursue a study that looked at monolingual and bilingual individuals’ brain activation to speaking their common language in an accent. I am curious to see if by being well versed in more than one language, bilingual children are able to recognize accents easier. Maybe one day I’ll master the French language enough to not have to constantly compare it to English! I guess I’ll just have to ensure that this isn’t my last trip to Paris…

–          Ankita Gumaste

Adank P, Noordzij ML, Hagoort P (2011) The role of planum temporal in processing accent variation in spoken language comprehension. Human brain mapping 33: 360-372.

Archila-Suerte P, Zevin J, Ramos AI, Hernandez AE (2012) The neural bases of non-native speech perception in bilingual children. NeuroImage 67: 51-63.