Angela Yen woke up in her home in Brisbane, Australia one day in April, ready to go to a job interview. She took a shower before heading out and started singing to herself, as she sometimes does. But this time, she noticed something different in her voice.
“All these words popping out of my mouth were sounds that I did not recognize,” the 28-year-old dentist told VICE over a video interview in July. “I was completely freaking out.”
She immediately called up one of her friends to make sure she wasn’t imagining things.
“Why do you sound Irish?” she recalled her friend saying over the phone, confirming that her accent had changed overnight.
This was Yen’s abrupt introduction to Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a rare speech disorder that experts are still trying to figure out.
“I know little to nothing about the Irish culture,” she said. “I'm still as Aussie as they come, but I just sound very different.”
Since the condition was first described in 1907, known cases of FAS remain few and far between, with only about 100 reported.
On discussion platforms like Reddit, there are anecdotes shared by those who have apparently been through this. But scientifically, little is known about the condition.
Yen said she had her tonsils taken out about 10 days before she woke up with an Irish accent, but it is unclear if the surgery triggered her FAS. Some people have reportedly developed a foreign accent after emerging from a coma or a severe migraine.
“When this first happened, the first couple of weeks, it was really tough because I was having a massive identity crisis… All of a sudden, I felt like I didn’t have any Aussie representation of me anymore,” Yen shared.
From cab drivers to new patients she meets as a dentist, people just can’t seem to wrap their heads around her accent.
“I actually stick out quite a bit,” she said, adding that she was initially quite hurt when people constantly asked her to repeat herself because they couldn’t understand what she was saying.
“I knew that I was the same person inside, but because I found it so different, I’m just like, ‘Well, do I adopt the new Irish culture?’” she said. “You don’t understand how much your voice and your accent represent you.”
Yen’s frustrating experience is a relatable struggle for others with FAS who feel like they’ve lost their identity along with their native accent.
Days after her discovery, Yen started posting videos about her new accent on TikTok. Despite being a pretty private person pre-FAS, Yen saw TikTok as a way to raise awareness about the condition and to document her journey.
“I woke up with an Irish accent, and I’ve never been to Ireland before,” Yen, who moved from Taiwan to Australia as a child, said in a viral TikTok video that has been viewed over 2 million times.
It’s been more than 60 days since she woke up sounding Irish. For the most part, Yen is still trying to get used to her new accent.
“It’s been very surreal, like it’s a really wild trip,” she said. “Most days I’m like, ‘Oh no, this can’t be. I’m gonna wake up. And it’s all gonna be a dream.’”
Over the past couple of months, Yen has gone viral on TikTok, gotten her brain analyzed on national TV, and spoken to intrigued Irish media.
Many FAS cases are believed to be triggered by damage to the central nervous system (like a stroke or brain trauma), multiple sclerosis, or tumors. Some also point to a psychogenic origin for some cases of the condition—in some cases, FAS appeared to be associated with mental conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
All these findings unsettled Yen, who—after frantic Googling—was seriously concerned that her accent was a symptom of an imminent medical emergency. Due to the rarity of her case, local neurologists whom she reached out to were all unable to help her.
At this point, she was desperate for medical advice. That’s when she was invited to appear on the local version of the current affairs TV program 60 Minutes.
On the show, Yen underwent a functional MRI brain scan which showed that while most parts of her brain appeared regular, she had an abnormal amount of activity in the language center of her brain.
“This was the most extreme language network [I’ve] ever seen,” the neuroscientist who examined her noted.
The revelation was emotional for Yen, who was filmed breaking down in tears in the neuroscientist’s office.
“I cried because I felt so relieved that I finally had the answers that I’m okay, I’m healthy,” she said of her tears that day. “And I now have proof that I’m not faking it. So people... can start taking [me] seriously.”
When her story started gaining traction on TikTok, Yen was met with some skeptics who accused her of faking her accent.
“Unfortunately it’s not fake,” she replied to one cynical TikTok comment. “I bloody damn hope my Aussie accent is still coming through.”
Still, she doesn’t regret taking her story public one bit. It has gotten her the medical help she needed, raised awareness about the rare condition, and introduced her to a community of people who also grapple with FAS.
Yen said that people have reached out to her, sharing their own experiences with FAS, after seeing her story on TikTok. She has also joined a Facebook group of about 100 members where people discuss FAS.
“It’s a very isolating syndrome,” Yen said. “Just having… someone else to talk to who was in the same boat—it definitely makes things a lot easier to navigate in life.”
Since she did a speech assessment on 60 Minutes with a speech pathologist and spoken to others with FAS, Yen has toyed with the idea of undergoing speech therapy to get her Australian accent back. But she finds the attempt difficult when it’s not so much a reversal to her original accent as it is just learning to mimic an Australian one.
“It’s not a complete cure,” she said, adding that her brief experience with the therapy process was really draining.
In a recent TikTok video, she shared that she now tries to pick up some Aussie words and pronunciation while listening to the radio.
While she came to terms with her new Irish accent, she realized that FAS also shook up her mother tongue. When speaking Mandarin, her Taiwanese accent apparently shifted to sound more mainland Chinese.
Then, as mysteriously as it appeared, Yen said that her Mandarin shifted back to a Taiwanese twang on its own.
She now drifts between different accents in English, but still with a foreign lilt. For example, she thinks she sounds more British on some days and more American on others. On some days, she catches herself with an accent that sounds slightly more Australian.
“But when I’m really stressed or tired, I definitely sound more Irish,” Yen said.
Yen has now made it a personal goal to visit Ireland after the pandemic, so she can accurately place her new accent and just enjoy being around people who sound like her.
“Humans, we’re tribal animals, we just want to feel like we want to belong,” she said.
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