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Bout of flu gives Brummie mother French accent

Debie Royston, a mother-of-two originally from Birmingham, has started speaking with a French accent after having the flu.

Mrs Royston, 40, suffered a series of seizures after the illness.

It caused her to lose the ability to speak and, when her voice did come back a month later, she was shocked to discover her Brummie accent was gone.

She said: “I had a bad seizure and when it stopped my husband asked if I was ok. I had words in my head but my mouth wouldn’t work.

“Over the next month, I had to learn to speak again. Only when I did, I could hear a different sound, not my Brummie accent.

“Everybody said I sounded French but I’ve never even been there.”

Medics were baffled by Mrs Royston’s condition after tests came back clear so she was referred to a speech therapist.

They suspected she had Foreign Accent Syndrome, a rare medical condition that leaves a person speaking in a different accent due to a brain injury, stroke or migraine.

This diagnosis was confirmed in March last year when Debie was sent to see an expert in speech and language at Newcastle University.

Foreign Accent Syndrome affects just 60 people worldwide and there is currently no known cure.

She said: “People speak to me and say: ‘where are you from?’ and when I say Birmingham, they look at me like I’m lying about it.

“They say: ‘no, you’re French.'”

When Mrs Royston, who now lives in Gillingham, Kent, developed flu like symptoms, she put it down to a virus and assumed she would soon recover.

But over the next few weeks her symptoms worsened so she went to see her GP.

She said: “He wasn’t very helpful.

“I tried to carry on as normal but it became a struggle. My head was pounding. It felt like I had been out drinking heavily the night before.”

When her face started drooping her worried husband, Andy, 41, took her took her to the Medway Maritime Hospital.

Mrs Royston said: “They admitted me and tested me for all kinds of things. They just didn’t know what it was.

“Then I had a seizure. My whole body locked and it went into spasms. It lasted for about 20 minutes.”

Doctors couldn’t find anything medically wrong with Debie so they discharged her while she waited for an appointment for a Datscan, which gives a clearer picture of the brain.

But when she started having up to ten seizures a day, she was rushed back into hospital.

While waiting to see a neurologist, she suffered another seizure and when it stopped, she was unable to speak.

With the help of intensive speech therapy, she started talking again about a month later but her voice was unrecognisable to family and friends.

She said: “I was so happy I could talk but when I started to say words I was thinking this is not how I speak. It didn’t sound like me.

“I didn’t think any more about it until I bumped into my neighbour outside. Her grandson, who’s three, was there and he asked me why I was speaking like I was from France.”

Mrs Royston says her condition has made her feel like she has lost her identity.

“Foreign Accent Syndrome sufferers go through a grieving stage, like a death has happened. You can’t find yourself any more.

“Every day I wake up and think: ‘don’t speak’ because in my silence I am Deb but something will happen and the silence is broken. You’re a stranger again.

“I’ve lived in Kent for 17 years but I still had my Brummie accent before I fell ill.

“Someone said they thought my accent now sounds sexy and it would be a shame if my Brummie one comes back.

“That upset me because I liked my old accent.”

Since Mrs Royston’s illness she has been forced to give up her job as a teaching assistant and Andy, who is a stock control manager for a music distribution company, had to work from home for six months to help care for her.

She has also left her with muscle weakness and she needs the aid of a walking stick.

Doctors still don’t know why the flu caused her seizures.

However, she says she is lucky to have such a supportive family.

Mrs Royston said: “Andy has been my rock. My children Daniel and Jasmine have grown up so much and have shown how responsible they are.

“They’re now 19 and 17 but at the time of my illness, they were both doing GCSEs and A Levels so it was a really bad time for it to happen.

“In the beginning, I couldn’t see the funny side of it but as time goes by you learn to laugh. We joke a lot in our house.

“Sometimes I think it would be easier just to say I am from France but then people might start asking me questions about it or talking French to me.

“It’s ironic really because Folkstone is only down the road from us so I could get the Eurotunnel to Paris but I’ve never been to France.”

Professor Nick Miller, an expert in motor speech disorders from Newcastle University, who diagnosed Mrs Royston, said: “Foreign Accent Syndrome can be caused by either a neurological problem, such as an injury to the brain, or for some psychological reasons like depression or major psychoses might be the origin.

Many people who experience changes to their brain may end up with speech difficulties. Usually listeners hear these as disordered speech, but for a small subgroup, listeners perceive their speech as foreign.

“This is because the subtle changes that the listener picks up are reminiscent of a particular foreign accent.

“The exact causes of the speech changes in Debie’s case are not entirely sure. We have not pinned it down yet. She appears to have suffered some seizures, but other factors may be present.

“For most people, sounding foreign is a temporary phase of a few days, weeks or months.

“The number of people left with a permanent foreign sounding accent are relatively few.”


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