AFTER waking up from surgery to fix a slipped disc, singer Abby Fender had been expecting pain.
But instead, the 39-year-old woke up to find she was talking in three different accents.
Her Texan drawl had disappeared and a week after the op, she was mainly speaking with a thick Russian accent – despite having never been to the country.
Abby was eventually diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome, a condition so rare it only affects around 100 people worldwide.
Now she says she's scared and terrified that she will never be able to speak 'normally' again.
"I woke up from my surgery and immediately knew something was very wrong with my voice, as I couldn't speak with any volume.
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"Soon, I began to feel the pitch of my voice go very, very high and we called it the 'Russian Minnie Mouse voice' where I sounded like a cartoon character all the time.
“Strangers I spoke to laughed in my face and I never got upset, because it was funny to begin with, but not anymore," she said.
Abby's accent has switched between Ukrainian and Australian, and she often has to lie about where she's from to avoid any further questions.
She said: "I remember once I said that I was Ukrainian and the other person started speaking to me in their native tongue.
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"I had no clue what to do, so I had to confess but before the current war, this wasn’t ever an issue, as no one asked questions.
"Now, this isn’t so simple, so I try to avoid saying where I’m from and instead, tell them what type of accent they’re hearing.
"It’s given me permission not to go into the details of my condition, which no one can relate to or will hardly believe is real, although I’m not lying," Abby said.
The former singer said that she has experienced racism due to her condition.
She added that police officers assume she is foreign, and therefore isn't aware of the 'law of the land'.
What is foreign accent syndrome and what are the signs you must know?
Foreign accent syndrome is a rare speech disorder in which the person who has it sounds like they are from another country, experts at Winchester Hospital said.
Problems could last for months, years or could be permanent.
Symptoms of the condition might include:
- making vowel sounds that are longer and lower (changes English 'yeah' to German 'jah'
- Changing sound quality by moving the tongue or jaw differently while speaking
- Substituting words or using the wrong words to describe something
- Putting sentences together the wrong way
"One time, an officer explained: ‘You know, we don’t drive like that here. You may be able to wherever you’re from.’
"I’m treated as if I’m not even American… like I’m an outsider," she said.
Prior to the operation, Abby was a professional singer and it was a hobby that she had taken part in since the age of 11.
Now, she can no longer sustain the pitch she once had and says she feels like she has lost her gift.
“It’s been incredibly difficult to be given any diagnosis, but many medical professionals don’t believe Foreign Accent Syndrome is real.
“I have been so disappointed, but I’ve gone through every test known to man, such as MRIs and CT scans, all to determine the cause of my speech dysfunction.
“I have been diagnosed with everything, from general speech dysfunction to Dystonia, a form of muscle spasm and contractions.
“However, nothing has ever pinpointed why I went to sleep with a southern accent and woke up sounding like this.
“It’s so bizarre and scary not knowing what is causing this to happen, but after finding help in January 2021, I was thrilled," she said.
Abby has recently seen a speech pathologist who helped her lower her pitch and mentally relax her neck muscles enough to slip into her natural speaking voice.
“I couldn’t believe it, as it was a miracle to hear my own voice again.
"With one vocal cord working, doctors said holding pitch wouldn't be possible, but they were wrong.
“It was like coming home after a very long trip, but this wasn’t to last, as only by using certain techniques such as blowing bubbles into a bottle of water using a straw, will I get my old accent back.”
At the moment, Abby is dealing with an Australian accent.
She added: "I don’t like not being in control or knowing what I’m going to sound like.
"It’s very scary.
"I believe something happened during the surgery that may have had a serious impact on the Broca portion of my brain, which controls the way we say different words and our general pitch when speaking, but we’ll never know.
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"It’s been frustrating on levels I cannot even describe, as knowing how and what I want to say, but being unable to verbalise it is a curse I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
"I am totally at the mercy of my brain and for the first time in my life, I don’t know how to control my voice, but I’m so grateful for the Foreign Accent Syndrome, as without it, I wouldn’t be able to speak at all."
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