Frances Willick, The Windsor Star · Thursday, Jun. 17, 2010
KENT BRIDGE, Ont. – As she stepped out with her horse Malachi on a routine ride around her farm in July 2008, Sharon Campbell-Rayment forgot to swap her cowboy hat for a riding helmet. When the horse spooked and Ms. Campbell-Rayment’s head hit the ground, she suffered right occipital lobe damage. She sat up and fell over again, this time damaging her left frontal lobe.
For days, she couldn’t speak at all, and when she eventually did, she stuttered uncontrollably. As she regained her powers of speech, she gained something completely unexpected– a foreign accent.
“I started to talk with a wee accent,” she says in an Irish lilt blended with a Scottish brogue. Along with the rolled r’s, dropped g’s, longer a’s and softer s’s, new words crept into her vocabulary. Her speech is peppered with “grand,” “brilliant” and “wee” — words she never used before the accident — and as she stops to collect her thoughts, she punctuates the pauses with “em” instead of “um.”
Ms. Campbell-Rayment’s condition is known as foreign accent syndrome, one of only about 60 brain-damaged people worldwide who have been diagnosed with it. In the only other recorded Canadian case, Rose Dore, a woman who had spent her entire life in Southern Ontario, awoke from a stroke speaking with what sounded like a Newfoundland accent.
Alex Sevigny, associate professor of communication at McMaster University in Hamilton, co-authored a study of Ms. Dore’s condition. He says normal speech is regulated by the brain’s neurons, which control movement of the mouth, tongue and lips. When the brain suffers trauma, the damaged neurons control those motions differently, resulting in what sounds like an accent.
But Mr. Sevigny emphasizes that the accents aren’t authentic. “It’s not that you actually speak with a new accent; you speak with something that sounds an awful lot like a new accent,” he said.
The condition may last a lifetime, fade away slowly through speech therapy, or disappear as quickly as it appears. Though Ms. Campbell-Rayment’s ancestry is Scottish, Ms. Sevigny says patients need not have any connection to the accent’s originating country.
Ms. Campbell-Rayment, 47, didn’t even notice her accent at first, and was surprised when her sister pointed it out while they were talking on the phone. “I was a bit aghast, to be truthful,” she said of the moment she heard her voice on a recording.
Her friends and family have adapted to the new cadences, and her two daughters think it’s all “a wee bit funny,” she says.
But there’s a darker side to her new life, too. Before the accident, Ms. Campbell-Rayment had just finished her masters in divinity, was working full-time as a pastor at three local churches, running camps and riding lessons at her farm, and raising two daughters. She is now unable to preach or teach and spends much of her time in a quiet, darkened room in her home.
But she says in many ways her brain injury was a blessing.
“I really don’t want to go back to the person I was. I was mad crazy, all over the place, morning till night. I’d breeze in to see my kids and breeze out to a meeting. I like who I’ve become, actually. I kind of honour the person I’ve become now.”
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