The unprecedented Oscar success of 'King's Speech' has brought much world attention to the baffling speech problem of stammering. In the movie it is Duke of York (the king-to-be of England) who stammers. Through strong but subtle strokes of direction, the film manages to bring out the frustrations experienced by those of us who stammer in our increasingly verbal world.
In the movie, Albert, the Duke manages to overcome his speech impediment through some very unusual speech therapy.
Over the last 3 centuries, researchers have tried to understand why stammering occurs and what can be done to 'cure' it. Up until the 19th century, the causes were attributed to everything from the devil upwards. During the 20th century, the focus shifted from calling stammering a disease and instead looked at it as a psychological condition which was caused by behavioural and environmental influences and as such, needed to be handled through psychological readjustments. Counselling became important. Confidence building and overcoming fear was the focus of most speech therapy programmes.
But the causes of stammering and its treatment have remained only a partially solved jigsaw puzzle.
Consider the questions:
- It affects mostly the first-born male child. 90% of all those who stammer are male. 65% have a family history of stammering. So is it genetic? Is there a ‘stammering’ gene?
- People who stammer are generally above average in intelligence and many are rated high in their academic and professional performance. So does it afflict only those with high IQs?
- Even those with severe stammering can sing fluently without any speech blocks. So does it have to do with rhythm?
- Most persons who stammer can speak fluently when alone or in comfortable company but lapse into stammering in stressful situations like interviews, presentations or on the telephone. Does fear play a role?
Having worked with young adults who stammer for over 25 years, chaperoning many up the slippery road to speech fluency, I, like many of my colleagues, have taken my cases through a gamut of therapies – many standard ones and some not so.
The problem with trying to overcome stammering is not so much in attaining increased speech fluency, as it is in maintaining and stabilizing the achieved change. Most cases show significant improvement during the initial phases of therapy but gradually lapse back into their old habit once the new-ness of the therapy practice wears off, and the initial euphoria abates. To be able to speak fluently in any situation is a fantasy goal in the mind of the person who stammers. There is tremendous glamour attached to the attainment of speech fluency. Such a point of view, although understandable, needs to be discouraged, since fantasies are thrilling and all thrills are emotionally de-stabilizing.
All our actions, including the act of speech, are neuro-muscular in nature. The brain emits electro-chemical signals that travel through the nerves and ‘order’ the required muscles to execute specific movements. The smooth transmission of these electro-chemical impulses signals can become disturbed when the mind is thrilled or excited. Stammering is a condition which feeds on emotional upheavals (another name for ‘thrills’).
Most persons who stammer are so desperate for fluency that they will do just about anything to get it. It is this very desperation that takes the goal farther away.
When someone who stammers says to me that he is ready to work very hard for fluency, my advice to him is to not use any will-power for fluency. He is encouraged not see his self-therapy as an endurance test.
Good, fluent speakers are masters of timing. They know how to operate their speaking machine most effectively with the least effort. Their system ‘knows’ how to synchronize the flow of their thoughts; how to optimize breathing patterns so as to support a powerful delivery; how to easily move their tongue and lips to facilitate good articulation. Effective therapy to overcome stammering must focus on developing these skills.
That would involve a daily routine of practice with timing of delivery, pausing, loudness modulation, changing of mouth dynamics’, etc. Regularly, the person who stammers has to practice at honing this skill.
When his speech becomes fluent (as it often does with this approach of ‘non-doing’), the person is encouraged to take this success in his stride. He is encouraged not to jump with joy every time he is fluent. He should try not to succumb to a feeling of achievement. He has to de-glamorize his speech progress and take it as an everyday, non-thrilling fact of life. The stammering behaviour is thus denied the emotional sustenance it needs to stay alive.
Over the years, a person who stammers has inevitably devised many strategies to deal with his speech problem. Avoiding certain situations, replacing words which begin with ‘difficult’ sounds, etc. are typical. But now, as he begins to become more fluent, new psychological strategies need to be developed. Where once his ‘mind’ was engrossed in handling his stammered speech, the person now has to help himself develop a mind-set to deal with his newly acquired speech fluency.
'Speech is the mirror of the mind' and a mind constantly concerned with not stammering will actually trip into dys-fluency more often.
The ultimate goal, really, would be to reach a state of mind which is not so desperately concerned with either stammering or not stammering. And this need not be an event set sometime far-away into the future. Enlightenment can happen in an instant!. As it did with Albert, Duke of York, when he delivered his speech accepting to become King of England.