Woman describes life with Foreign Accent Syndrome

PEARL, Miss. (WJTV) – A Pearl woman is one of a few hundred people in the world diagnosed with a very rare condition.

The syndrome makes her sound like a tourist in her hometown. Ethel Mae Atkins only knew her voice was unusual because her family told her so. Strangers just thought she was from another country.

“I run into a man in Memphis and he say to me, ‘I’m from Senegal, you from home?’ I say I’m no Senegal, man!” said Atkins.

Despite what it sounds like when she talks, Atkins was born and raised in Pearl, Mississippi.

“They say to you, ‘Where are your parents born at? I say ‘They’re born in America.’ “You’re born in America?’ ‘Me too!’ they say ‘Hmmm?” said Atkins.

Ethel has never traveled outside the United States. Yet she has a foreign accident. She’s one of only a few hundred people in the world with “Foreign Accent Syndrome.” Dr. Edward Manning, a neurologist at UMMC, diagnosed her.

“The stuff the brain does to allow us to speak and move around and have thoughts and so forth is incredibly complex and so subtle damage to different areas of the brain can cause some really unusual things,”  said Dr. Manning.

“I could not read. I could not spell. But I never forgot how to count money,” said Atkins.

Nineteen years ago, Ethel was in a car accident that left her with 167 stitches in her head. She didn’t speak for three weeks.

“When she finally did start back talking and she talked the way, she talks the way she’s talking now, I just cried because I was like that’s not my mama,” said Yolonda Lewis, Atkins’ daughter.

“I say I’m the same. I look the same. I eat the same. I act the same. It’s just the voice comes differently,” said Atkins.

WJTV’s Candace Coleman: “Would you actually say it is an accent or it just sounds like an accent?”

“It sounds like an accent. If you interviewed someone who sounded like they were from Jamaica, and then you got a Jamaican-speaking individual to listen to them talk, they’d say that’s not Jamaican,” said Atkins.

Dr. Manning has diagnosed three patients with Foreign Accent Syndrome. He says people suffering from it had to experience some kind of trauma normally to the brain.

“Since the wreck, I recognize that anything can happen in a matter of seconds,” said Atkins.

And before being diagnosed, people go through a series of tests.

“To make sure you’re not insane, make sure you’re not pretend, make sure you’re not faking. I say who wants to fake like this,” said Atkins.

Some people have it temporarily and others are stuck with it. Ethel has learned to accept it and remain positive.

“Your dialect change but your life stays the same. I thank God I’m in my right mind,” said Atkins.

Dr. Manning says the best treatment for Foreign Accent Syndrome is speech therapy, but its effectiveness isn’t guaranteed.

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