London 1940 was a grey place. In June, smog and grey skies made way for sunshine. Not that there was any summer cheer. Homes were in a perpetual gloom because of blacked-out windows. Food was scarce and kitchen broth was the family staple meal. And then the Germans were approaching.
Against this backdrop, the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a series of inspiring speeches that strengthened the resolve of this despairing nation. His most famous, ‘we shall fight on the beaches’, remains etched in the British psyche even today. The bald, rotund cigar-smoker suffered from a stutter and yet is remembered as one of the greatest orators of all time.
A concerned blog reader contacted me to ask whether it was possible for her to stop stammering. King George and Winston Churchill overcame their speech impediments, as did actor Bruce Willis. Had they not, the world would look very different today (and there would be no Die Hard movies). But how did they do it? How can a stutterer gain eloquent prose, sufficient to rally the troops and entertain the masses? Let’s find out, and dispel some false assumptions along the way…
Stammering and public speaking
When I was at school I was head boy. I did a reasonably good job, until it came to public speaking. At 17, I was terrified of standing up in front of my peers. On our leaving ceremony I was to give a final address to the school. Worry invaded my waking hours and stopped me sleeping at night. When the day came and I stood on the stage, it took all of fifteen seconds before I became paralysed with fear. My words clogged in my mouth like a hairball and, stuttering, I struggled to string my carefully-prepared words together. I willed the stage to open up to let me disappear into an abyss of shame.
Since then my public speaking anxieties are largely gone. At the time, I was experiencing stage fright (a form of social anxiety). Although resembling stuttering, it is something quite different. We all stumble over our words when anxious, but ‘true’ stuttering is a breakdown of normal smoothness of speech not confined to the podium. Words are repeated, sentences abruptly paused and phrases slurred (yyyyyyyyyes!). The more it is resisted, the worse it gets. Normally starting in childhood – for most- it has gone by adulthood. So is the parents’ who are to blame?
Stammering – is it the parents’ fault?
‘Poor thing, they must have had a difficult childhood.’
Contrary to what we might assume, stammering (or more correctly ‘stuttering’) is not caused by a traumatic upbringing. Neither is it a sign of low intelligence or learning difficulties (you only have to look at the list of famous stutterers to realise that). The Ancient Greeks used to think it was caused by a ‘dry mouth’ but in modern times the most popular explanation has been more psychological.
During childhood, it is thought that stuttering is ‘learned’. A child will begin to stutter in response to a certain situation or social cue. Eventually the habit becomes ingrained. Carrying on this stutter into adulthood, it becomes as natural as squinting on a sunny day. Except we now know this isn’t the whole story.
Stammering: a brain on the blink?
When we speak normally, the left side of the brain barks into life – telling the rest of our brain (and our mouth) what words to say. The ‘thinking brain’ (the foremost surface of the brain, called the frontal lobes), produces these mouth-moving messages.
With stutterers – thanks to MRI imaging – it has been discovered that a small connection from the left frontal lobe is faulty. Nervous impulses travelling from the left ‘thinking brain’ to the regions that control lip movement (the parietal lobes – situated on the side surfaces) are delayed. The normally (relatively) passive right side of the brain appears to compensate – and – like a brass band having two conductors, left and right compete and words become jumbled.
These recent discoveries may explain why there is no cure for adult stutterers. There are however things that can be done to make things better – treatments that have evidence to show they work; even the worst of today’s techniques are better that the 1899 tongue depressor pictured right.
How famous actors and public speakers overcame their stammer
For most people, stuttering gets worse with anxiety. But for some people, a stammer can be overcome by facing the stress head on: Bruce Willis joined a drama club when he was eight and his stuttering vanished.
If you watched the truly excellent movie The King’s Speech then you might recall the variety of ways Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) tried to help King George VI overcome his stutter. Watch closely and you’ll see that what you see in the film bears similarities to techniques that have been shown to work today:
Stuttering Management: The oldest technique that has been shown to work; a therapist tries to deal with the both sufferer’s emotions and the stammer itself. Rather than attempt to rid the stutter completely, a client is taught to make hesitations smoother and less obvious. Emotions are explored and fears surrounding stuttering challenged.
Fluency Shaping: This more radical approach tries to entirely change a stutterer’s way of speaking. Fluency, not the stutter becomes the focus. Stutterers practice a new way of speaking although emotions and psychological issues are not directly challenged.
The best ways to treat a stutter seem to be a combination of these techniques (called ‘integrative’).
Not everyone conquers their stutter, but many do. As with all conditions without a definitive cure, quackery and profiteers abound. There is no doubting that living with a stammer can be a dark place. For the reader who posed the question, and for all stutterers reading this, I hope they find inspiration and a winning strategy.
Thanks for reading – all opinions are my own. Feel free to leave your comments below…
Büchel, C., & Sommer, M. (2004). What Causes Stuttering? PLoS Biology, 2 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020046
Carl Herder, Courtney Howard, Chad Nye, & Martine Vanryckeghem (2006). Effectiveness of Behavioral Stuttering Treatment: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN COMMUNICATION SCIENCE AND DISORDERS, 33 (`), 61-73
Prins, D., & Ingham, R. (2008). Evidence-Based Treatment and Stuttering–Historical Perspective Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 52 (1), 254-263 DOI: 10.1044/1092-4388(2008/07-0111)
- The European League of Stuttering Associations
- The American Institute for Stuttering
- A selection of stories from the 1940s