Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The King's Speech (and me)

Tonight, I finally gathered the courage to watch The King's Speech. Why did I need courage to watch a movie, you might ask? The reason is both simple and intricately complex:

I'm a stutterer (Edit: person who stutters; "stutterer" is not who I am, but something that I do from time to time), and I have been for as long as I remember.

Well, there it is - I've said it. To be fair, I actually don't remember stuttering when I was little. My first very distinct memory of stuttering was sometime in seventh grade, when I had trouble saying "nosotros" (we/us) in Spanish class. But I also remember knowing I was going to have trouble saying it, because we were going around the room, and I counted ahead to see what I was going to have to say. Which means by that point I was already stuttering. When did it start? That's a question for another day.

So why am I publicizing this fact now? First, I'm in the midst of a lifelong attempt to "cure" my stutter. Except this time, rather than hoping it gets better on its own, I'm actually being proactive about fixing it. In an irony of ironies, I love language, and speak six different languages to varying degrees of proficiency. Yet the main thing that prevents me from speaking them better is not my inability to learn languages, but rather my inability to voice what I want to say. Getting rid of my stutter would remove the primary obstacle I have in becoming fluent in all of these languages.

Second, I'm sick of the lack of progress in stuttering research. Not much has really changed in the last few centuries. At least people for the most part tend to no longer believe that stutterers are possessed by demons (although I think they still do in some parts of the world). But has there been much progress on identifying the actual causes (and treatments/cures) of stuttering? I'd argue no. With the exception of a study identifying potential genes associated with stuttering, no one really knows what's going on. For a condition that affects between 0.5% and 1% of the Earth's adult population (and up to 5% of children), it's sad that there's been so little progress.

So I've decided to treat this as an engineering problem, and figure out how to hack my brain. I used to be able to speak without any dysfluencies, so why can't I again? And arguably, I'm already an above-average communicator. A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture to 300 students in a foreign country. I coached my high school gymnastics team my sophomore year of college, have friends across the world that I speak to in multiple languages, am frequently sought out for advice/consultation from friends and professionals alike, and honestly, generally like talking and telling stories. Which is why becoming more fluent is that much more meaningful to me.

One last thing for now - I'd like to give some words of advice to non-stutterers. First, stutterers are not intellectually less-capable than non-stutterers. I remember with clarity and pain my 11th grade English teacher "helping" me with words when asked to read something aloud if I had more than a quarter second delay before beginning a word. As if I didn't know how to pronounce the word! I remember equally well the embarrassment just last week of saying "um" twice before being able to produce my name for the cashier at a coffee shop (stutterers almost invariably have trouble saying their own name). Stutterers are normal people who think just like the rest of the world. They just happen to have some bug in the connection between neural messages and actual speech. If you are conversing with a stutterer, do not offer advice (trust me, you don't know how it feels), do not complete sentences or fill in words for them, and obviously, do not make fun of the way they speak (stuttering is probably the only mental disorder that is still socially acceptable to laugh at - I can't even begin to describe how much this disgusts me). Stutterers already have inordinate amounts of guilt, fear, embarrassment, and anguish that they place on themselves, so the best thing you can do is relax and be patient with them.

And with that, let's embark on this adventure. I'll post my learnings, history, thoughts, and answer any questions that people have. Thank you for joining me on this quest - after all, without people to talk to, what's the point? =)


  1. Very interesting, Darren. If I had not read this, I actually wouldn't have noticed your stutter at all.

    The thing that would frustrate me are those people who don't have the patience to allow those affected to continue their sentence unaided and insist on interjecting.

  2. In technical parlance, I'm what's referred to as a "covert stammerer" (I rather like the British terminology). I'm actually quite skilled at hiding it, although this works better in English than other languages, since I can adeptly weave around difficult words by substituting or changing word order. A lot of people think I'm kidding when I tell them I have a stammer. But rest assured, I'm not. =)

  3. Oh interesting! So do you know which words cause it more than others? Does it happen at random times? Random words?

    It's probably hard to rally people that don't have it to donate to the research, because it's not life threatening. Still should make for interesting research that can tell more about how we're wired up!

  4. In the process of figuring that out. It happens at "random times" in the sense that there are good days and bad days (sometimes good weeks and bad weeks). I'm also backwards from most stammerers in that I tend to speak well in public speaking engagements and worse in small groups. I've determined that the "mechanical" problem I usually encounter is my breath stops and my tongue presses hard against the roof of my mouth, which means there's a block when trying to start a word, especially if it starts with an open vowel sound, which requires your mouth to be in essentially the opposite configuration. Psychologically, I usually know a few words in advance.

    Anyway, yeah, it's hard to get people to donate to the research, but considering there are like 70 million or so adults who stammer, should be some rich ones in that group =P.