Experience: ‘I woke up with a Welsh accent’

II have always been aware of my accent. In 1996, when I was eight, my family moved from Kent to Stamford, Lincolnshire, and my estuary accent stuck out like a sore thumb. Everyone sounded so northern to me and I was teased for my ‘EastEnders voice’. I also had trouble copying accents. When I was 14 we went to Lanzarote and I became friends with two girls from Liverpool and Birmingham. My attempts to imitate their accents sent my family into hysterics. “You sound ridiculous,” my father laughed.

I have kept my Kent accent throughout my adult life. Then I developed in 2022 functional neurological disorder (FND), a condition that disrupts the way the brain communicates with the body. It caused mobility problems and seizures, but I also sometimes developed a temporary vocal tic or slurred speech. So it didn’t come as a big surprise when I woke up one day in June 2023 and my voice sounded different. I assumed it would go away, but two days later I still sounded strange. My neighbor said to me, “You sound just like my aunt. She’s from South Wales.’

At first the accent was not so recognizable. I thought it sounded more Germanic and assumed it would disappear, but it became clearer. I had no difficulty speaking; my voice was loud and clear. It was just very Welsh. My friends and family thought it was hilarious. I have never visited Wales. I’ve never even seen Gavin and Stacey.

After two weeks I went to the doctor, but it took months before I was finally diagnosed with foreign accent syndrome – a speech disorder that causes a sudden change in a person’s accent, usually after a traumatic brain injury or stroke. But they could find no reason for my sudden change.

Although I tried to find the funny side of it, at first it upset me and caused me a lot of trouble. My own family didn’t recognize me when I called. I was afraid that my kids’ school wouldn’t believe that they were actually talking to me if they had to call me in an emergency, so I went in and explained it in person. My bank has voice recognition as a security feature and it was a challenge to explain my accent. The cashier was confused. “Can’t you put on your old accent?” she asked before concluding, “It’s probably best to avoid phone banking.”

Because my accent is so strong, people always ask me about it. I’ll go to a restaurant or a shop and someone will ask, “Where in Wales are you from?” They often don’t believe me when I say I’ve never been there. I toyed with the idea of ​​just saying ‘Cardiff’ but decided it was better to tell the truth. People often laugh at me when I say I just woke up with this accent, but when they realize I mean it, they don’t know what to say. It’s uncomfortable.

I started posting about my condition to raise awareness. I discovered a community of people affected by FND and set up a WhatsApp group. There is a lady from Kent with an Eastern European accent who has been instrumental in keeping my mood up.

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Although I don’t think I’ve been reborn, I do think my accent has influenced my personality. The soft, lilting accent has helped me calm down when I’m stressed. I used to be quite shy, but now people are so interested in my accent that I am very happy to talk about it. Most people are nice, but some think I’m making it up. One person even accused me of secretly being Welsh and faking videos with my old accent. I try to ignore nasty comments.

I’ve since spoken to a professor of neurology, who thinks my brain probably activated the accent as a way to cope with my FND. The specific way it controls the muscles in my face makes my accent sound Welsh – it’s all to do with how your tongue and mouth move. I don’t have as many problems with slurred speech since my accent changed – somehow it’s just easier on my brain. But when my speech starts to sound slurred again, my accent temporarily returns to my old English accent.

I would like to visit Wales one day. Now that I’m used to it, I really like my Welsh accent. I don’t think it’s going anywhere, so it might be fun to visit a place where everyone looks like me. People have suggested that I should learn the Welsh language – who knows, maybe it will come naturally to me.

As told to Heather Main

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