In “The King’s Speech,” a 2010 movie set in pre-World War II England, soon-to-be King George VI has to conquer a stammer (Americans call it a stutter) that has hindered him since childhood and makes public speaking an agony.
With the help of a speech therapist, the king learns how to control his stutter enough to get through a speech.
King George, though — shown to the right — never completely defeated his stutter. While he managed to overcome the characteristic repetition of sounds at the beginnings of words, in old films, you can still see him pausing, grimacing, gathering his courage and moving on as best he can.
More than 50 years later, therapies for those who stutter aren’t that different from the king’s. Many, like King George’s, focus on learning ways to minimize the impact of the disorder. They involve learning to speak more slowly, regulating breathing, and gradually progressing from single-syllable responses to longer words and more complex sentences.
People have recognized stuttering as a speech disorder for thousands of years, and they’ve speculated about what causes it for just as long. In King George’s time, it was thought to stem from childhood emotional trauma or an unhealthy attachment to a parent, usually the mother. Today, some people still mistakenly think that stuttering is caused by psychological or social problems, or nervousness and anxiety.
That’s beginning to change thanks to a somewhat recent discovery by a team of researchers, who identified changes in three different genes that appear to play a role in stuttering. The researchers propose that part of the brain dedicated to fluency of speech may be uniquely sensitive to problems caused by defects in these genes. Further research could provide new insights into what causes stuttering. Eventually, this work may suggest ways to correct the problem.
Stuttering is a speech disorder in which sounds, syllables, or words are repeated or prolonged, disrupting the normal flow of speech. These speech disruptions may be accompanied by struggling behaviors, such as rapid eye blinks or tremors of the lips. Stuttering can make it difficult to communicate with other people, which often affects a person’s quality of life.
Symptoms of stuttering can vary significantly throughout a person’s day. In general, speaking before a group or talking on the telephone may make a person’s stuttering more severe, while singing, reading, or speaking in unison may temporarily reduce stuttering.
Stuttering is sometimes referred to as stammering and by a broader term, disfluent speech.
Stuttering affects more than 3 million people in America, and another 60 million worldwide. Stuttering affects people of all ages, but it occurs most often in children between the ages of 2 and 5 as they are developing their language skills.
Approximately 5 percent of all children will stutter for some period in their life, lasting from a few weeks to several years. Boys are twice as likely to stutter as girls; as they get older, however, the number of boys who continue to stutter is three to four times larger than the number of girls.
Approximately 75% to 85% of those who stutter in childhood will outgrow it when they become adults. However, there is currently no way to know who will stop and who will continue. Boys are more than twice as likely as girls to stutter, a difference that increases even more in adulthood, when men are 3 to 4 times more likely to stutter than women. In the end, about 1 percent or less of adults stutter.
We make speech sounds through a series of precisely coordinated muscle movements involving breathing, phonation (voice production), and articulation (movement of the throat, palate, tongue, and lips). Muscle movements are controlled by the brain and monitored through our senses of hearing and touch.
What causes stuttering?
Although the precise mechanisms are not understood, there are two types of stuttering that are more common. (A third type of stuttering, called psychogenic stuttering, can be caused by emotional trauma or problems with thought or reasoning. At one time, all stuttering was believed to be psychogenic, but today we know that psychogenic stuttering is rare.)
Developmental stuttering occurs in young children while they are still learning speech and language skills. It is the most common form of stuttering. Some scientists and clinicians believe that developmental stuttering occurs when children’s speech and language abilities are unable to meet the child’s verbal demands. Developmental stuttering also runs in families.
Neurogenic stuttering may occur after a stroke, head trauma, or other type of brain injury. With neurogenic stuttering, the brain has difficulty coordinating the different components involved in speaking because of signaling problems between the brain and nerves or muscles.