Stammering my way across the globe

A man in a kimono smiling for the camera, with a backdrop of rural Japan
David in Japan

Keen traveller David Collier tells us about his experiences of stammering abroad and what they've taught him. 

I'm blessed to have travelled and lived abroad, and to be married to a wife of a different ethnicity — and through this lens, I've seen how attitudes to stammering differ around the globe. In this article, I aim to give an honest account of two pivotal stammering adventures in Hong Kong and Japan, and how despite my dysfluency, I became a stronger person for the experience.

Hong Kong

Since 2005, I've had the privilege of being in a relationship with someone from Hong Kong. I've visited Southern China on multiple occasions, staying in local neighbourhoods and witnessing the ebbs and flows of daily life.

Speaking Cantonese is something I've always found tough. It's true that many people lack the confidence to converse in another language, but mix in a fear of speaking altogether, and practising a foreign tongue becomes nigh impossible. Countless are the times my Cantonese family has innocently asked me to say some Chinese tongue-twister, only for my heart to sink as I'm inadvertently thrust into the stammering spotlight.

Moving abroad was bound to be stressful, but for me, my stammer added an extra element of uncertainty.

In Hong Kong society, my wife naturally takes on a majority of the speaking due to her proficiency in Chinese. While this comes as a welcome respite for me, it makes it tempting to excuse myself from all speaking engagements, which is a slippery slope towards word-avoidance. As stammerers, these are the tightropes we walk: being ever-mindful to vent pressure where we can, but taking care not to abdicate total responsibility for our own speech.

Growing up, my wife was told that stammering was a 'bad habit' that could be eradicated through practise, and as such, her parents had rarely encountered another adult who overtly stammered. Initially, my wife's parents were understandably concerned their daughter had chosen someone who stammers, but this was borne out of the same concern any parent would show for their child. As they've gotten to know me, I'm super grateful that her parents have come to accept me for who I am. We've developed a loving bond that transcends language and stammering. Actions have spoken louder than words ever could.

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A man in a busy restaurant looking at the camera while stirring his food
David experiencing Chinese cuisine


Fast forward to 2013, and I upped sticks to Japan for a 2-year course studying biomedical sciences. Moving abroad was bound to be stressful, but for me, my stammer added an extra element of uncertainty. How fluently would I speak? How would people react when I stammered? Would it hold me back?

As expected, the same fear of speaking was evident for Japanese as for Cantonese, and I would often shy away from certain professional and social situations, which blunted my mastery of the language. To this day I am often asked the question 'Can you speak Japanese?', to which my answer is an ashamed 'No'. This fills me with guilt — guilt at not having mastered the language, but also guilt of being a stammerer. Only I know the true reason why I didn't put my whole heart into practising spoken Japanese, which could leave me with a sense of sadness…if I let it.

After returning from Japan, I slowly began to co-exist more easily with my stammer. 

But more than this, I also found it difficult to speak English in Japan. If one mispronounces words in a foreign language it's no big deal, but can you imagine the feeling of appearing unable to speak your own mother tongue? I would dread the times my Japanese colleagues would unwittingly ask for advice on spoken English, only for me to struggle with the words, leaving them unsatisfied and me drained of confidence.

Despite a few bumps in the road, my experience of Japan was overwhelmingly positive. My Japanese colleagues were gracious hosts, and not once did I hear a negative comment about my stammer. In fact, I don't recall anybody mentioning it at all. This may have a lot to do with Japanese cultural norms for respect and discretion, but equally likely is the possibility that they didn't even notice or care. As I reflect from time to time, stammering will always be a bigger issue for me than anybody else.

After returning from Japan, I slowly began to co-exist more easily with my stammer. Would I say that travelling to Japan was pivotal in helping me achieve this peace? ABSOLUTELY. I returned as someone who'd proven his ability to survive in a foreign land, and who'd travelled the length and breadth of the country. Put simply, this gave me pride in myself, and began to lift my feeling of self-loathing.


Each time and place carries its own attitude to stammering. Some cultures exhibit a mindset of tough love which goes hand in hand with a challenge to accept personal responsibility; while other cultures are quietly respectful but lack the impetus to positively intervene. None are superior or inferior — just different. While one approach might work for some, its antithesis might be the solution for others.

What I wanted to convey here is that whatever you do DON'T LET STAMMERING HOLD YOU BACK. If you want to live abroad — go and do it; if you want to marry your partner whose parents don't speak your language — go and do it. You have just as much right to a formative, life-changing travel experience as the next person. You will create memories that last a lifetime (and I bet you the most important ones will not be about stammering). And if you're lucky, your journey might just act as a seed for change that blossoms into an acceptance of yourself for who you are, stammer and all.

Bon voyage.

Read more Your Voice articles from people who stammer and their allies. Would you like to write something? Submit Something For The Site or email for details. 

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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