By Charles Creasey
A mum who wakes up every day with a different foreign accent claims she suffers RACIST ABUSE – and has been subjected to callous supermarket comments and prank Chinese takeaway calls.
Michaela Armer from Poulton-Le-Fylde lost her consistent Lancashire accent overnight in 2015, something she believes was triggered by an MRI scan which ‘aggravated’ her chronic complex migraines.
Since the scan 47-year-old Michaela doesn’t know before opening her mouth whether she’ll speak in a Chinese, Filipino, South African, Italian, Polish or French accent.
Michaela is one of just a handful of people worldwide who has Foreign Accent Syndrome – a condition which makes it sound as if the person is speaking with a foreign accent.
Interior design business owner Michaela said: “I’ve suffered from racism all the time over the last couple of years.
“The first time it made cry was in a supermarket back in July 2015 and someone said ‘those Polish people are everywhere’ – it was awful.
“I’ve had people say I sound Chinese all the time. I’ve had people ringing at work laughing down the phone saying ‘can I have chicken fried rice?’. It happens all the time.”
“Once might be funny, but when you’ve heard it infinite times it can be really frustrating and upsetting.
“Sometimes I’ve just felt like a second class citizen. People can just be so awful – even just asking ‘where are you from?’ and not believing you is racism in my opinion.
“Having people say these things shows how much my identity has gone with the condition.
“It’s so frustrating waking up in the morning and not knowing how you’re going to sound.
“I’m always worried – is somebody going to take the mickey out of me today?
“It’s like someone switching the light off in the brain, I’m just waiting for that switch to switch back on – no-one knows when that will be.”
After the MRI scan in May 2015 Michaela said she struggled to say her own name and regained her speech by singing the infamous 1998 Witch Doctor earworm as a type of therapy which helped her practise saying vowels.
Mum-of-two Michaela said: “Two weeks after the MRI scan I began to notice I was getting my words wrong. I would say things like ‘bag tea’ instead of ‘tea bag’.
“Two weeks later I realised I couldn’t even say my own name. I had to get my speech back by singing ‘Ooh Eeh Ooh Ah Aah Ting Tang Walla Walla Bing Bang’.
“Some may laugh or mock me through no fault of my own. It’s hard, I feel like I’ve lost a part of my identity.
“I tell people I’m from Preston and they don’t believe me. I say I went to school in Preston, I lived in Preston, I’m from Preston – but people just won’t have it.”
Michaela has been in and out of hospital for the last two years and is planning to go to see specialists in Edinburgh in a desperate bid to get answers – and her accent back.
FAS has not only affected Michaela’s speech, she also experienced other physical symptoms including being unable to walk distances and functional tremors, which has left her heavily reliant on a wheelchair and unable to drive a manual car.
Michaela said: “I gave up my Audi A4 because I couldn’t drive it anymore.
“I had to give up my job in retail because of my illness which meant I had to give my rented home three-bedroomed terraced house and move in with my partner John.
“The problems affect other parts of my body. At work, my arm will just sweep the desk as my brain can’t cope which is very frustrating.
“My body sometimes just goes into a spasm. If I’m really bad I just go home and lie down until the symptoms pass.
“I just live my life every day the best I can – I get up, get dressed and keep smiling – that’s how I manage to get on.
“I would just be elated if I got my original Lancashire accent back permanently.
“I would be completely elated – it’s just so frustrating waking up an not knowing how I’m going to sound.”
Michaela’s partner of three years John Gaffney, 71, said that Michaela’s been through a lot but he’s proud of how she’s managing her condition.
John said: “You never know what accent she’s going to have on a given day – some days she sounds Eastern European.
“She sounds a little bit Chinese sometimes, then French, Italian – she’s even sounded Polish and Latvian.
“I remember there were once some women in their 60s or 70s were arguing with each other trying to work out where she was from.
“They were talking about her as if she wasn’t there.
“It’s very hard to see her go through this, but she’s a very determined woman.
“I’m in awe of her – sometimes I think I don’t deserve her.”
** Professor Nick Miller, Professor of Motor Speech Disorders at Newcastle University said there was no evidence that MRI scans cause Foreign Accent Syndrome.
Professor Miller said: “I don’t think an MRI scan would cause Foreign Accent Syndrome at all. MRI scans are very specifically targeted x-rays.
“It’s like saying taking an x-ray of an arm caused a broken bone. Unless there was a major accident in the scanner, which is unlikely, it is 100 per cent unlikely that that would happen.
“For an MRI to be done something must have to have already changed in the brain – that’s what you test with an MRI.”
WHAT IS FOREIGN ACCENT SYNDROME?
• Foreign Accent Syndrome is a speech impairment from a neurological disorder (e.g. stroke/ head injury) or a psychological problem.
• The person suddenly speaks with a different accent
• Those affected usually experience a change in tongue and vocal chord movement, usually after a head injury or a stroke.
• The condition has been reported in medicine for 150 years.
• Intonation, rhythm and pitch of speech all have the potential to be affected by the syndrome.
• Speech can sound more ‘sing-song’ or more plain and monotonous.
• For most people the condition disappears spontaneously as they recover from a head injury/ stroke.
• If the syndrome is a result of injury, treatment relies on speed, coordination and movement therapies.
• If the syndrome is psychologically based, talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapies are used.
(Info from Professor Nick Miller, Professor of Motor Speech Disorders, Newcastle University)