Is “Foreign Accent Syndrome” a Cinnamon Bun?

On October 15th, 1996, bakers at the Bongo Java Roasting Company were surprised to find that nestled among a tray full of fresh cinnamon buns was one pastry that looked uncannily like Mother Teresa. In fact, it was so uncanny that for some, it became miraculous; evidence that The Great Baker in the Sky was sending us messages to prove His existence.

Bun like Mother Teresa

Nun or bun?

Or was it?

What we can see going on here is the confluence of two effects: Patternicity, [1] a cognitive bias based on the tendency to see patterns when none exists, and the Law of Truly Large Numbers, which states that given really large samples sizes, weird things will happen.

The TLN thing can be dealt with pretty easily in this case. How many cinnamon buns do you think are baked on a single day at the Bongo Java House? Let’s assume 100, which is probably very conservative. What’re the odds that one of those might look a little like Mother Teresa? Probably unlikely.

But the Bongo Java House had been open since 1993, six days a week for 50 weeks a year, which gives us a bun total of 90,000 over a three-year period. So what are the odds that one of those might resemble Mother Teresa? Now it’s seeming a little more possible.

Now think about how many bakeries there are in the entire USA, churning out cinnamon buns by the bucketload for three years. The 2009 US Census said there are over 38,000 retail bakeries, and on that basis, we can  estimate that some 3,420,000,000 buns were made between 1993 and 1996. So, one more time – how likely do you think it is that one of those looked similar to Mother Teresa? Or Barack Obama? Or even yourself?

Given such huge numbers, it is almost inevitable that a Nun Bun will appear, and it only takes ONE person to spot one to make the miracle. Only it’s not really a miracle but a natural consequence of the law of Truly Large Numbers. [2]

Let’s go one step further with this. Suppose the media got a hold of this miraculous appearance of Mother Teresa (which they did) and suddenly told millions of people about it. Up until this point, no-one was expecting a Nun to pop up in their daily box of high-calorie pastries so no-one was really looking. But once you’ve heard about one Nun, folks will start looking for another. And given that there are millions of buns made every day, the odds of finding one are good.

Out of 3 billion buns over three years, do you think it likely that we could find, say, 10 such Nun Buns? Easily. Bear in mind that there’s also some flexibility built in to the notion of “resembling” or “looking like” Mother Teresa; the bun doesn’t have to be the spitting image but enough to garner consensus from a large group of observers that it’s a reasonable apporximation. So you’re not just looking for a single example of a bun that looks exactly like Mother Teresa but clusters of buns that have common features. Put another way, it’s not that we have one bun in 100 that looks just like Mother T, but 3 or 4 that “sort of” look like her. This increases the odds of finding miraculous munchies.

So here’s the big question: Given that we find 10 ersatz nuns out of our multi-million sample, can we now talk about a special “Mother Teresa effect?” Is there a mysterious force that creates Mother Teresa buns? Is this proof that the Great Baker in the Sky really exists?

Sadly, no. We’ve stacked the odds of finding the “Mother Teresa effect” by setting up what we want to find in advance. By defining what we’re looking for – a bun that looks like a specific nun – given an large enough pool of buns from which to draw our examples, we’ll find her. [3]

All of which brings us to the topic of Foreign Accent Syndrome. This is a rather dramatic pathology that has been defined as “a motor speech disorder in which patients develop a speech accent which is notably different from their premorbid habitual accent. [4]” Other researchers have suggested that there may be cases of FAS that are psychogenic in origin [5], may be a prosodic disorder [6], [7], or developmental in nature [8].

According to Akhlaghi, Jahangiri, Azarpazhooh, Elyasi, and Ghale (2011), “Most FAS cases reported so far have been due to a stroke involving lesions in different cortical and subcortical areas of the language dominant hemisphere (mainly left hemisphere). [9]”

Linguistically, a wide range of features have been reported as being significant in creating the “foreign sounding” nature of the speech. These include the reduction or simplification of consonant clusters, consonant or vowel deletion, consonantal changes of articulation, vowel changes of articulation, epenthesis or metathesis, and vowel diphthongization.

Such variability suggests that there is less of  syndrome going on here than we might want to believe. Rosenbek (1999) suggested that because many of the features of FAS are similar to those of a more general apraxia of speech (AoS), we should treat is as a subtype of this. Marien, Verhoeven, Engelborghs, Rooker, Pickut, and De Deyn (2006) note that, “research has neither been able to identify a coherent system in the speech errors nor to separate it unambiguously from AoS [10]. What seems more likely is that this is more of a cinnamon bun than a specific disorder. Back in 1996, Kurowski and Blumstein said of FAS:

Why then do we persist in seeking to characterize the phonetic characteristics of this disorder, its potential neuropathology, and its underlying mechanism, instead of concluding that the foreign accent syndrome is an epiphenomenon existing only in the “ears” of the beholder. [11]

In contrast, the same authors change their minds in a 2006 paper where they say that:

On the basis of consideration of the various case study reports in the literature and our own work, we have proposed that the foreign accent syndrome is properly considered a syndrome and that it is distinct in both its characteristics and underlying mechanism from an apraxia of speech, a dysarthria or an aphasic speech output disorder. We also proposed that the foreign accent syndrome is primarily a disorder of linguistic prosody. [12]

But this doesn’t convince me. Like the Nun Bun, the condition is predefined; it’s “any example of a general motor problem that sounds like a foreign accent.” Given the many, many ways an apraxia could present, a small cluster will indeed sound similar to some other language. And studies suggest that when you ask naive listeners to identify a specific language, they tend to be less than accurate; they can, at best, simply say, “it sounds foreign as opposed to just unintelligible.”

And statistically, like the Nun Bun, we are talking about some 60 cases in refereed journals since 1947 [7] among many other cases of AoS where the client has NOT been described as having a foreign accent. Patternicity and Truly Large Numbers can explain the phenomenon without the need to propose some special etiology or feature set. In terms of therapy, it’s unlikely that one would take a fundamentally different approach to intervening with a client who “has” FAS as opposed to someone identified as having apraxic symptoms.

Foreign accent syndrome may make for good TV and catch the ears of the media at large, but there’s still limited evidence that it deserves, or needs, to be a special syndrome.

Notes

[1] I talked about this in an earlier post with a review of Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain. Other words to describe this phenomenon of finding patterns when none exists are apophenia and the clustering illusion.

[2] “Miracles” frequently turn out to examples of the human tendency to count the hits and ignore the misses i.e. to ignore the fact that when very, very large numbers are involved, weird things can occur. A 2010 plane crash in Libya killed 103 people but one child survived. Although the media was quick to call him the “miracle” child, the other 103 people clearly didn’t get to partake of the same luck. And those people who claimed to have dreamed about the crash the night before it happened weren’t compared with all the people in the world who have ever dreamed about a crash that didn’t happen.

[3] Some of you may be reminded of the story that if you have an infinite number of monkeys typing letters at random, you’ll eventually end up with a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Law of Truly Large Numbers says that you don’t have to have an infinite number of monkeys but just lots of them and a large amount of time.

[4] Verhoeven, J. and Marien, P. (2006). Neurogenic foreign accent syndrome: Articulatory setting, segments and prosody in a Dutch speaker. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 23, 599-614.

[5] Verhoeven, J., Mariën, P., Engelborghs, S., D’Haenen, H. and De Deyn, P. P. (2005). A foreign speech accent in a case of conversion disorder. Behavioural Neurology, 16, 225-232.

[6] Haley, K.L., Roth, H.L., Helm-Estabrooks, N. and Thiessen, A. (2010). Foreign accent syndrome due to conversion disorder: Phonetic analyses and clinical course.  Journal of Neurolinguistics, 23, 28-43.

[7] Haley, K.L. (2009). Dysprosody and Foreign Accent Syndrome. Perspectives on Neurophysiology and Neurogenic Speech and Language Disorders, 19, 3, 90-96.

[8] Mariën, P., Verhoeven, J., Wackenier, P., Engelborghs, S. and De Deyn, P. P. (2009). Foreign accent syndrome as a developmental motor speech disorder. Cortex, 45, 870-878.

[9] Akhlaghi, A.,  Jahangiri, N., Azarpazhooh, M.R., Elyasi, M. and Ghale, M. (2011). Foreign Accent Syndrome: Neurolinguistic Description of a New Case. In Proceedings of 2011 International Conference on language, literature and linguistics. Dubai, UAE.

[10] Mariën, P., Verhoeven, J., Engelborghs, S., Rooker, S., Pickut, B.A. and De Deyn, P. P. (2006). A role for the cerebellum in motor speech planning: Evidence from foreign accent syndrome. Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 108, 518-522.

[11] Kurowski, K.M. and Blumstein, S.E. (1996). Foreign Accent Syndrome: A Reconsideration. Brain and Language, 54, 1-25.

[12] Blumstein, S.E. and Kurowski, K. (2006). The foreign accent syndrome: A perspective. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 19, 346-355.

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One response to “Is “Foreign Accent Syndrome” a Cinnamon Bun?

  1. Pingback: Guitarists called “Steve” and the Confirmation Bias | The Speech Dudes

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