What Accent?

Jun 5, 2015
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Transcript

WASHINGTON: We're going to kick things off on our "Godsend" episode with a story straight from the heartland, which might be hard to believe for reasons you'll soon learn. But I'll let Ellen Spencer tell the tale.

SPENCER: I am Ellen Spencer, and I live in Indianapolis, Ind. I was born in Indianapolis, Ind. I don't exactly sound like I was born in Indianapolis, Ind., and I get all the time, where you are from? And peoples not to believe me when I tell them, but I am from here. Landlocked Indiana - we don't have many foreigners traveling through, like maybe Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. I had a French lady get very angry at me once. She thought I was dissing the homeland.

We were have primary elections, and I was helping, which by the way, only an American citizen could do. So it was my job to ask everybody to please to hand me their picture ID, and so I asked the lady if she could to please put her ID onto the table. And that's how I pronounced it then. And then she started to speak in the French to me. Obviously since she's voting, she is a naturalized citizen. But she was telling me she was from here and there and all this - but she's carrying on in French. I tell you what, I don't know any French. I knew enough to say I don't parlez-vous. She got angry at me. And there was a line of people - made quite a scene. And I tell you, I apologize. I - you know - whenever anybody gets angry at me, I don't get angry back. It does no good. I just say, hey, I'm sorry you can't accept it, but again, facts are facts. I am not French. I don't even speak the French.

Six years ago I was at my computer working on a project - got a very, very bad migraine, but it was the numbness that was striking to me. It was - it started at the tip of my chin and went to my lips. By the time she gets to my lips, I'm noticing it. I start moving my head around, slapping myself in the face, you know, tapping. And I was doing dishes late that night, and boy, did I get hammered with a severe pain at the back of the head like somebody trying to chop my head off. It was really strange.

Anyway, the next day I go to the hospital. My husband to call me about two hour after I'm at the ER to check. And he asks me - he says, what did they give you? And I go, nothing, I just have saline only. He said, you are slurring your speech like they gave you a strong medication. And then the neurologist - what is my diagnosis, I ask him. He goes, well, slurred speech of unknown origin. And I'm thinking to myself I just spent two, three days in the hospital, and my diagnosis is something I could have diagnosed myself with. You sound funny, and you got a headache. And I don't know why.

I would say it started to transition, as you would say, to an accent within 48 hour. Every day I'm experimenting to try to figure it out on my own. You want to say the word weird - I feel weird. I can say it now but back then - I feel word (ph). OK, that makes no sense to people - they're trying to figure out. OK, that's fine, I'll pick a different word, strange - uh-oh. Different - oh, my gosh. You get running out of synonyms after a while. It's like give me thesaurus. Then you're like, OK, I can't even say thesaurus.

If you could imagine to look in the mirror and see you own lips are moving, but that not you voice coming out. This is not the voice when I talk to my little girl and read her her bedtime story. This is not the voice when I stood in front of a church and proclaimed my devotion to my husband and says, I will love you forever and always. I died. My speech was gone.

It fueled me to seek out even more information on the net. Boom. All the sudden I hit one video in particular. It was called "My Strange Brain." And it was about a lady, Cath Lockett was her name, C-A-T-H, I cannot say the T-H's very well. And she sounded French. And same similar kind of things to happen - this boom - all of a sudden they're sounded like a foreigner in their own country.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MY STRANGE BRAIN")

LOCKETT: Sometime they say I'm French. Then they say I'm Italian. Then they'll say I'm German, I'm Croatian, Hungarian...

SPENCER: And this thing was called Foreign Accent Syndrome. It's so rare, doctors not have heard of it before. So if you go to a doctor for answers, people don't believe.

Peoples would say, you're making it up; it's fake; she sounds stupid. But there's no question - something happened in my brain. I am not a psych case. I'm not a nut. I'm not stupid. Say you are a - an actor in a play and you are taking on a Southern accent or something, you will flub up once in a while somewhere along the line. I live this 24/7. I don't flub it up, OK?

I go to church about a week later. It was like the first time I had to really go out. Singing is very, very special to me because I have chronic pain - that I'm allergic to all pain medication. One of the ways I cope with the pain is to sing. I am singing in front of a church full of people 10 day after I am having this to happen for me. Few days before we actually do this in front of the church, we practice the songs. I am scared that I go and get up to the microphone and not be able to sing. And the very first song what comes up is a song that's very special to me over the years, and it's called "Shout To The Lord." Fran (ph) is playing the intro on the piano. Here it comes - is it going to work or not? Take my breath, and I start to sing the song. And it came out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPENCER: (Singing) My Jesus, my Savior, Lord there is none like you. All of my days...

And it sounded the same way it always sounded when I sang before my voice to change. And I tell you, it was just like time stood still. I continued to sing, but I was really choked up. And, I mean, I managed to keep it. And then by the time I got to that second verse with that line that I love - forever I love you, forever I'll stand - I didn't need no microphone to fill that whole sanctuary. They came from my toes all the way out my voice and up to heaven.

So then I started to inspect what's different about my singing. Wait a minute. How it is I can sing but not to be able to speak? Well, I discovered for me that - oh, boy, almost to cry from saying this - I can sing in my head a sentence and be able to speak in my own speech. So if I say, even though I sound like a foreigner, I am a Hoosier and grew up on a farm. And then I'm singing it in my head right now. Even though I sound like a foreigner, I was born and raised in Indiana and grew up on a farm. I'm Ellen Spencer, and I have Foreign Accent Syndrome. Don't you hear it starting to slip back on the - probably about the word syndrome - did you hear it coming back? I can do that only for a little bit. But I tell you, it is such a precious gift when that piece of you is taken away. And that's how it feels. It felt like everything else in the last previous two weeks had been - I'm lost. I have a piece of me still. I have to act to be myself. I have to put the same amount of effort into getting back to my original voice that somebody else would have to in getting to a foreign voice - only in my case, all I got to do is sing it in my head because I still sing the same. But I can't go around, you know, making this a living musical all my life - go down singing, you know. I never really cared for musicals anyway. But could you imagine? (Singing) I'm here to get some bread - you know. How are you going to do stuff like that? Right now, I just celebrated what we call an FAS birthday number six. So it's been six years with this voice I am speaking right now, and nobody to this day can explain why. Nobody can help me with it. I'm kind of on my own. I haven't given up on getting back to my old voice, but I haven't stopped living because I don't have it. And if, from this moment on, I have to go on with just a new voice, then it's what it is. It's my voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPENCER: (Singing) All of my days, I want to praise the wonders of your mighty love.

WASHINGTON: Thanks, Ellen Spencer, for sharing your story with the SNAP. It was produced by Julia DeWitt, with original sound design and score - did you dig that last lit? - by our own Pat Mesiti-Miller. When the SNAP JUDGMENT "Godsend" episode continues, a woman discovers her true magic powers and a glimpse at one of the most elusive mammals in the entire world - I am not kidding, Snappers. It's going to be awesome. Stay tuned, right after the break. SNAP JUDGMENT. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.