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Why dentist woke up with Irish accent

Angie Yen has been living with foreign accent syndrome since April 2021. Photo / Angie Yen

Angie Yen has been living with foreign accent syndrome since April 2021. Photo / Angie Yen

A Brisbane dentist has described waking up with an Irish accent after undergoing tonsil surgery, comparing the experience to being "in someone's body but it was my face I was seeing in the mirror".

Angie Yen – who moved to Australia from Taiwan when she was 8 – has been living with foreign accent syndrome since April 2021, when her voice began to sound different 10 days after a tonsillectomy.

The extremely rare brain disorder – which causes a sudden change to a person's speech – is typically triggered by a head injury, surgery or stroke.

Speaking to 7 News, the 29-year-old said more than a year later, her accent "hasn't completely reverted back" to her Australian twang.

"I still have a light American and Northern Irish lilt. It gets thicker when I'm stressed, tired or run down," Yen, who has never been to Ireland and doesn't have immediate family from there, told the website.

"I still struggle to pronounce words sometimes in my professional life as a dentist – embarrassing at times, people struggle to understand what I'm saying and I get frustrated being asked to repeat myself. I still sound different and some days with a thicker accent."

Yen said that while the "speech issues were temporary struggles that got better with time", the greatest challenge has been "accepting my new accent, voice and identity".

"It's bizarre as I never had speech issues despite English being my second language, and I grew up here in Australia," she said.

She first noticed a difference in her voice while singing in the shower in the days after her surgery.

"I was very worried and freaking out. I felt like I was waking up in someone's body but it was my face I was seeing in the mirror. I was very confused," she said.

"I had no idea this could happen overnight to people and learned that it was most commonly caused by neurological triggers such as from stroke, seizures and migraines.

"I was so worried that I was going to have a stroke but I didn't have any of the typical signs."

When she then met with an emergency doctor at a private hospital to talk through her concerns, she was "dismissed, laughed at, mocked but got no answers as to why I sounded like this".

"It was so crazy and bizarre," she said.

Yen was eventually told to call an ear, nose and throat specialist – by which time "the novelty wore off" of the change in her accent.

"I had no idea how sounding different could change someone's life for the worse," she said.

To this day, Yen still hasn't been given any explanation for what she called "a poorly documented condition with no cure".

She started sharing her story on TikTok – prompting "people from all over the world [to] reach out to me saying how they were glad they finally found another person who has this isolating and rare condition and they felt validated".

"I ended up getting answers a lot quicker and found scientific proof that I wasn't faking this for clout and attention, which a lot of people claimed," she said.

"I am paying the favour forward by spreading awareness about this rare condition."

In a clip on Yen's TikTok, Australian scientist Karl Kruszelnicki said that "waking up to find yourself speaking in a foreign accent like Ange can be very distressing because your speech partly defines who you are".

"It's unnerving to suddenly lose control of one's voice, and to be locked into a single speech modality," Dr Karl said.

"It is usually caused by a brain disorder. This can be from a head injury, stroke or surgery. But it can be related to diabetes, immune disorders or other unknown causes.

"To speak clearly requires incredibly precise control by your brain of your lungs, larynx, tongue, lips, jaw and mouth."

Accents like Yen's Irish one are not "real" accents but a "damaged form of the person's native language and accent".

But, "just like you can get physio for a sports injury, [speech] can be [fixed] through speech training".