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Stuttering in Korea

I had given up on English. It's my native language, but I figured after 30 some-odd years of disfluent speech, it was time to try something else. So I signed up for language classes in Korean, rationalizing that if I was going to try to teach myself how to speak, I might as well learn a new language along the way.

This might seem completely insane, but when the prevailing theme of your conscious thoughts for multiple decades is some variant of "Why can't I say what I want to say?", you come up with lots of crazy ideas.

For background, I've been a person who stutters for my entire life. I wrote about it on this blog a few years ago, so I think it's time for a followup. I've learned a lot since then, about myself and about stuttering, but in this post I simply want to give some insight into what it's actually like to stutter, and how my speech has changed over time.

After the last stuttering post, the predominant reaction I got from friends was either "I never noticed", or more assuredly, "You don't stutter". I'm what's known as a "covert stutterer", which means I'm pretty good at hiding my stutter via word choices or other tricks, but at the core, it's basically the same as the sound-repetition s-s-s-stuttering that most people are familiar with. So when people tell me definitively "You don't stutter", it's actually kinda maddening! Yes, thank you for so obviously knowing me better than me!

Now, for the 99% of you who have never stuttered, you might be curious what it actually feels like. Well, the best that I can explain it is the following: Have you ever had a nightmare where you were being chased, or there was some other impending danger, and no matter how hard you tried to scream, no sound came out? Stuttering is exactly like that, except in real life, and potentially hundreds of times per day. It's not simply "not being able to say what you want to say", it's closer to "having a mini panic attack that prevents you from saying what you want to say, hundreds of times per day". A lot of people will try to empathize with stutterers with statements like, "Oh yeah, when I'm nervous, I stutter, too", but fundamentally they're completely different experiences: when a "normal" person stumbles over some words due to nerves, it's a one-off event, and when the stressor dissipates, so does the disfluency. But when a person who stutters experiences a disfluency, it's a complicated, systemic symptom of a chronic problem.

So, there's something wrong with the connection between your speech center and your vocal cords, right? Just fix the connection and the problem disappears, right? So simple. Except no, it's not nearly that easy. Stuttering (and conversely, fluency) comes and goes in waves, both minor and major, and is also situational. Stutterers usually have no problem talking to themselves, but often trip up when asked their name. Some stutterers do fine in one-on-one conversations but can barely get a word out if forced to speak in front of a group. Others, like me, actually speak more fluently in a leadership role (presenter, coach, etc), but trip up in small conversations. I used to dread group dinners at college (where you randomly sit at a table with 6-8 of your dorm mates), because I could barely say what I wanted to say, yet I loved giving lectures as a teaching assistant. And curiously, nearly all stutterers can sing and even rap with complete fluency. But it's not merely a situational occurrence, either - there are always certain sounds that are notoriously difficult for each individual stutterer, sometimes regardless of situation.

Anyway, back to the present day. Just the other day, nearly immediately after replying to an email about an upcoming lecture I'm giving, I got hit by an unusually common moment of disfluency. I hit "Send" on the mail, then went up to the barista at Starbucks to ask for more hot water for my tea: "뜨거운 물 더 주세요" (More hot water, please). This is a phrase I've spoken countless times, yet it's always a difficult one for me, because I tend to trip up on the starting "D" sound. Yet I felt pretty good about this one since I've gotten it out fluently the last couple dozen times. But the barista caught me off guard by saying "안녕하세요" (Hello) rather than the expected "필요한 게 있으세요?" (Is there something you need?). Something broke in the chain of fluency, and the response turned into, "Um um um um um ... 뜨거운 물 주세요". The classic "um loop". In terms of what's going through your mind, though, it's something like, "Um (shit I said um) um (uh oh, why am I saying um) um (damn it, you had this) um (the barista looks worried) um (getting super embarrassed, feels like entire world is focussed on you) 뜨거운 물 주세요 (finally. thank god. man, that sucked. i totally had that!! what happened? argh. just take the water). The barista's expression briefly changed to the "foreigners suck at Korean" expression, and then she gave me my water and that was that.

Imagine knowing exactly what you want to say, yet not being able to say it. Imagine how frustrating that would be. Now imagine that frustration repeated many times per day, day after day, year after year, all the while feeling like the person that you're showing the world is not who you truly are. The thought consumes your waking hours, as literally every time you speak, you have meta thoughts about your speech (which of course makes your speech worse). You celebrate the victories, reveling in that time you had your friend in stitches with the bad date story you relayed as deftly as the best standup comic, yet you beat yourself up over the defeats, like that time you couldn't ask for water in Japanese despite knowing exactly how to say it. You wince when your friend teases, "Remember that time when you were so drunk you forgot your name?", knowing that 1) Obviously no one ever gets that drunk, and 2) Of course I remember the time, because it was incredibly embarrassing having a guy you just met make fun of you in front of a dozen people for "not knowing your own name". You build up this thing inside you, this intangible yet all-too-real foe, which sometimes disappears for months at a time, yet always finds a way to make an unwelcome return at the most inopportune of times. And you understand completely that moment in The King's Speech where King George VI and his wife are elated over his success in giving a radio speech, despite the fact that the speech was literally to lead Britain into war against the Nazis. Imagine that! You've just led your nation into war against Nazi Germany, but your overriding emotion is, "Thank god I didn't stutter"!

That is what it's like to stutter. That's how important it is to people, and how heartbreaking and frustrating it is to not be able to say what you want.

Conventional wisdom says that if you stutter into adulthood, you will be a lifelong stutterer. It's supposedly binary, and if you fix your speech as a kid, you're fixed for good, but if you don't, you're supposed to just give up hope and accept your fate. Conventional wisdom says you can learn to "control" your stutter, but not to "cure" it (I think this is one of the fundamental problems with modern stuttering therapy, but that's a different topic altogether). When I left high school, I was pretty resigned to this fate. In college, I think my speech actually got worse, and interviewing for jobs as a grad student was incredibly terrifying for me. So I was confused and delighted when, a few years after college, my speech suddenly started getting better. At one point, I actually thought I was miraculously "cured", and even volunteered myself as a research subject for an audio-linguistics lab (they told me over the phone I wasn't a stutterer so couldn't participate - ironic!). I started to speak up at work meetings, started to do better at group dinners, and just started talking more in general. I felt like I was on top of the world, and more importantly on top of my stuttering, and with just a little more effort, I would be the "normal" fluent speaker I always aspired to be. But life doesn't work like that, and although my speech had gotten remarkably better, I never actually "grew out" of my stutter. It was tamed, but it was still very clearly there, always right under the surface.

So with that as background, a few years ago I signed up for my first language class in Korea, and I was scared shitless, mainly because I knew I would be forced to speak out loud in class. Somehow I made it through high school and college speaking as little as possible in class and dreading the times when I didn't have a choice and couldn't get out of speaking. I still remember as clearly as if it were yesterday the day a kid came up to me after English class senior year of high school and asked me, with a sneer, "Why do you talk like that, with so many pauses? Can't you talk normal?" Moments like that leave an indelible wound on your psyche, as real as ending up on the losing side of a schoolyard fight. And as you grow older, you realize that most of the world never actually left high school - assholes from high school grow up into older assholes, bullies tend to stay bullies, and nervous, shameful, wounded kids grow up into nervous, shameful, wounded adults. And that wounded kid had grown so frustrated with his inability to speak his native language fluently that he decided he would re-learn how to speak in Korean.

Well, was I able to leave my stutter behind in a new language? Obviously not :). In a completely unsurprising turn of events, I stutter way worse in Korean than English. Korea also seems to be what I like to call a "hyperfluent" country - the incidence of stuttering seems to be way, way lower in Korea than most other countries (it's typically between 0.5%-1%, but anecdotally feels much lower in Korea). A potential side effect of this is that Koreans tend to give you approximately 20ms in which to initiate a response, and any delay is taken to mean that you must not know how to speak Korean (time pressure makes most stutterers stutter worse). So Korean is tough, but as I've learned more of the language, I've gotten better at putting together longer and longer phrases and sentences, sometimes even surprising myself. In fact, every language I speak has its own distinct stutter, which fits nicely with neuroscientific theories about language compartmentalization and clearly hints towards complex system-wide root causes of stuttering. Korean intonation is particularly difficult for me due to unwanted pauses I make (i.e., stuttering) during sentences, whereas my Chinese vocabulary is awful, yet since the tonal sounds are unaffected by stuttering, I've been told my Chinese is better than my Korean (it's not). My Japanese pronunciation is supposedly good, yet I don't even know enough words to effectively stutter. And compared to them all, now I feel basically fluent in English. At least until I "forget" my name or have ESL speakers feed me English words (Thanks, random guy I just met! Without your help, I may have never known the proper English word to finish that sentence.)

If you don't stutter, and especially if you know me and how I like to tell long, sometimes rambling stories, you still are probably thinking, "It's really not that big a deal". The point is that for people who stutter, it is the biggest deal. Not merely because you have a lot of "oh that's embarrassing" moments, but more broadly, for me it's because I feel like when I stutter, I'm giving people a false impression of who I am. The guy who speaks fluently and passionately about whatever - that is the "real" me, and in those moments when the "real" me disappears, I feel like a fraud to the world. Don't misunderstand, though: this post is not about wanting sympathy or pity or anything like that, because I definitely don't. It's just a brief explanation of a fascinating psycholinguistic phenomenon that I happen to be a primary observer of. It's about starting a conversation (har har), and hopefully shedding some light on a condition that affects around 70 million people across the world. And it's a reminder that the mind is a fascinating thing that we're not even close to understanding.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. Glad you're enjoying learning and speaking Korean! 화이팅!

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