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Articles > Life April, 14, 2015

Foreign Accent Syndrome: an outsider at home

Neil Thomson
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Yes, Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) is a rare medical condition. I would know as I suffer from it myself. Have you any idea what it’s like having an American accent when you were born and raised (mostly) in Scotland? Well, let me just tell you… it’s utter hell.

To be more descriptive, FAS is a rare condition where one inadvertently develops an accent from a foreign country. It can be achieved at a young age by hearing a foreign accent on a movie or a TV show frequently (mostly by means of endless re-runs or a lot of characters with the same accent) or by listening to a relative or a significant other with a foreign accent more frequently than your native accent. In my case, it was the former (due to some sort of child fascination with West Side Story). Now for years, people have been asking me and questioning whether I am, in fact, an American. Some have even dared to flat-out deny my Scottish heritage. Such statements are serious blows to my emotional stability and many people look down on me for it. Why must I have to put up with their prejudices when they don’t know the first thing about me?

Growing up with an american accent in Scotland is hard

Photo by Nicolas Raymond

After all, forget accents, half the people my age can’t even speak the English language properly. Up in Scotland, most of the youth speak with the very unique dialect that is Scottish, which consists of many nonsense words that no one else understands, similar words with different meanings to the English dictionary and, more often than any other language I know of, swearing. Almost every sentence has some sort of derogatory term or a rude sexual reference because everyone was brought up with parents that didn’t mind shouting curses at each other across the dinner table. I was one of the lucky ones. My parents never said bad words around me so I wasn’t exposed to them until much later in life (at which point, I couldn’t stop laughing every time someone swore).

Anyway, my point is – people don’t like people who are different. This fact has been present in every social discrimination known to man (and teenagers) because everyone wishes that everyone was the same. If everyone was the same, there would be no disputes, no arguments and no conflict at all because everyone would agree with everyone. Unfortunately, that would mean no creativity, no uniqueness and no individuality – in other words, no human factor. Humans crave individuality as it makes everyone their own person. Sure, everyone wants a collective where everyone agrees with each other but they don’t want everyone to walk like them, talk like them, look like them or act like them because that just makes them feel like an old phone: obsolete.

Therefore, whenever people hear someone with a foreign accent, the immediately think “this person is different from me. Why?” It’s a very uncomfortable truth and I wish that people were more open to people like me. Right now, having a foreign accent makes you feel like one of the Native Americans (ironically). It makes you feel like everyone wants to drive you out of your homeland and exile you to a mysterious, barren wasteland where they would dare not go themselves, on account of its inhospitality, since its the only place they can think to put you. I might be exaggerating a little but this is honestly the feeling you get when you sound differently from everyone else.

I feel like I can sympathize with immigrants and foreign visitors who face this problem too and I hope that there aren’t many others like me who face this problem. To be called an American by your fellow countrymen and classmates, to be told that you don’t belong… it’s a bi**h.

Have you got the same problem? Do you know someone who has Foreign Accent Syndrome?

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  1. joe

    You don’t have foreign accent syndrome. It is usually caused by a stroke that has lead to brain damage. You, on the other hand, are not a sufferer. This isn’t a syndrome and you have merely picked up an American accent because of your fascination with America…..

    • Neil Thomson

      Wow, that’s quite the accusation, Your Honour. You think you know me just because you’ve read up on the symptoms and called ‘bull$h!t’ on it? Well, you’re wrong. I does exist and I do have it, and you know what? It’s because of people like you that wrote this article. How dare you judge me like that.

  2. Jenny

    ‘…everyone was brought up with parents that didn’t mind shouting curses at each other across the dinner table.’ Stop stereotyping your own nation, you’re portraying Scottish people to be vulgar and dysfunctional. I’m sure there are parents who regularly swear in front of their children, but they are in the minority and I personally don’t know any who do.

    • Neil Thomson

      Well, I certainly can’t think of any other explanation for the lack of vocabulary most people my age have. The ones I know can barely finish a sentence without swearing. And I know Scottish people aren’t vulgar and dysfunctional but they can be very aggressive when they’re the slightest bit offended. I’m only trying to raise awareness, not to hurt anybody’s feelings.

  3. Willie Oxgangs

    So are you American or not?

    • Neil Thomson

      Read the article, Willie. I make that pretty clear.

      • Willie Oxgangs

        You may know my name but you don’t know my fu**ing story Neil. I was born in Scotland but I have a German accent and I’ve had 2 girlfriends at the same time for the past 8 months. I was brought up as Greek Orthodox Catholic so I can tell you’re from South Carolina.

        • Neil Thomson

          Hey man, no need to get angry. I’m just saying that I made it perfectly clear that I am from and currently live in Scotland. I’m not disrespecting you in any way and I’m not questioning you.

          • Willie Oxgangs

            I came out the womb angry, Neil bud x

  4. Now there’s some food for thought. I work at a small medical practice, and when a workman visited recently to carry out some building repairs, he said to me: “You’re not from round here, are you? I thought I heard a bit of an accent.” I tried to explain to him that I’d had most of my Liverpudlian vowels coached out of me by my choir mistress at private school, but I think I know what he meant. I believe I may have a very slight Australian accent, acquired through repeatedly listening to a live LP by Anglo-Australian vocal group The New Seekers when I was young. This album included humorous chat between the songs, led by the band’s two antipodean members, Marty Kristian and the late Peter Doyle, both from Melbourne. Some of my classmates at school used to ask me if I was American.

  5. Jo Jo

    Hey man must have been tough growing up in the states with a Scottish accent, we usually struggle to understand you Brits haha

    • Neil Thomson

      No no no, youI’ve got it twisted. I have an American accent when I am actually Scottish. It’s pretty frustrating

  6. Neil Thomson

    (sigh) all the time! It’s usually in passing someone, they ask “Are you American?” and I have to explain the entire situation to them. With older people, it’s just an “Oh right” but with younger people like myself, it’s really been a problem over the years. In fact, my first-year French teacher once questioned it and then later on she said “Stop talking like that, Neil”. I was disgusted!

    • “Stop talking like that” !? The ignorance is shocking!! I guess we just need to raise awareness about FAS so some ‘sceptics’ can be educated about the condition.

  7. Hi Neil, thanks for sharing your experience. Really interesting to hear your perspective and how you almost feel like an ‘outsider’ in your homeland.

    If I hear someone with an American accent my response is usually ‘I love your accent! Which part of The U.S are you from?’, but I totally understand how an innocent question could be so annoying for you. Do you usually end up explaining that you’re not American?

  8. It is interesting how such a small difference can make such a big impact in somebody’s life. Accents are, of course, no way of finding out who a person is.

    I moved to the United States when I was 3, and then returned to England at 12 years old. I kept my English accent the whole time, mainly due to home-education and being stubborn. I am not pretending to have gone through anything like you have Neil, because my case is incredibly different, but my point is this: Whenever I felt separate from people around me, I decided that it was because I was growing up in a family from a different culture, and because I sounded different. But having lived back in England for 5 years now, I am aware that that is only part of the case: People are unique for their personality, for their beliefs, how they live out their morals and help others. Things like how people sound or look are superficial.

    If people do not accept your explanations or your accent, then I would hazard a guess that they are the sort of people who would find something else not to accept, or else do not have an understanding for how small ostracization can make such a difference to a person’s morale and wellbeing.

    Just my thoughts 🙂 . Would you agree? I hope that you have atleast found it easier to find accepting people because of your accent.

    • Neil Thomson

      I never thought about it that way, Helena. The people I meet aren’t always like that but there are a lot of people my age who have made fun of me for it. Older people seem to understand a little easier.

      I think that’s why, over the years, a lot of the people know have stopped asking and started accepting that it’s just how I am. What I’ve also noticed is that younger people are now starting to make fun of me. Just yesterday, these three kids no older than about 13 came up to me and started making fun of me. I knew them and it wasn’t the first time they had done it. At that moment, I just said to myself “No, I’m tired of this” and i walked up to one of them and slapped him across the face. I confess I’m not proud of it but I’m just so sick of hearing the same sh*t all the time.

      Fortunately, that made me realize something: people my age are now starting to forget about my accent because now, they know a bit more about me and what kind of person I am and their now starting to treat me like a human being. I guess it’s just ignorance that provokes people to say things like that. That gives me a bit more hope for the future.