We need to adjust the language and reactions to stammering

The article's author, Phillip Cole

20th October 2020

Phillip Cole argues that for society's attitudes to change, we need to educate people and make them look at their language and reactions to those who stammer.

The class has a general hubbub about it as the English teacher opens the door, enters and places their bag on the desk. The children stop their murmuring and fall into a polite silence. It's Show and Tell this morning, where the students are selected one by one to stand in front of their peers and explain a book they’ve read recently. For most of the students, it's a daunting task. 

One boy gets called to the front of the class, it's his turn. He's holding a book in his hands and thrusts it forward as he begins to introduce it. He stumbles on the first word, having to use his learned breathing techniques to articulate himself. The second word is just as difficult, but he manages to say it. As he starts to describe the book's plot, he begins to stammer more and his breathing becomes sharp and stilted. The class erupts into a fit of giggles and the boy's face turns red with embarrassment. The teacher is no help, still somewhat fatigued as her morning coffee hasn't yet kicked in. She tuts to herself loudly and tells the boy to "slow down" and "take his time".

It is unfair to assume that someone who stammers is afflicted with anxious tendencies... A stammer is something which is involuntary and not mutually exclusive to one's mood or state of mind.

Regardless of whether you have a stammer, this scenario is something which we all dread. For someone who stammers, the situation is heart-wrenching. The main issue here is that the visual cues of a stammerer are often conflated with anxiety and apprehension and for a long time this has frustrated me. It is unfair to assume that someone who stammers is afflicted with anxious tendencies and that the moment is simply too big for them. A stammer is something which is involuntary and not mutually exclusive to one's mood or state of mind. 

Children and adults who stammer have to grapple with the difficulties of trying to combat a societal mentality that normalises the occurrence of a stammer as something akin to the jitters or stage fright. It's harmful to reinforce that this is the case and only serves to further intensify the nerves which someone who stammers may have when speaking in public.

Awareness

There needs to be more awareness and education amongst students and teachers alike to provide them with the knowledge as to what a stammer is and how to create the most comfortable environment as possible to allow someone who stammers to feel confident and to thrive. For a long time I have been a big proponent of this approach, having written articles to this effect and doing speeches at my old primary school encouraging children to have a bit more patience with those who stammer and how to recognise the signs. This is still a dialogue that remains relevant and crucial.

Where a teacher is taught to understand how to interact with students who have dyslexia or other physical disabilities, they should similarly be trained as to how to create a comfortable environment for someone who stammers too.

For teachers like the above, their ignorance or lack of awareness as to how best to handle a person who stammers is inexcusable. Where a teacher is taught to understand how to interact with students who have dyslexia or other physical disabilities, they should similarly be trained as to how to create this aforementioned comfortable environment for someone who stammers too. Far too commonly they are not, and this is the sad reality we face as a society. 

In my experience, for young children this education is an altogether more difficult task. They haven't yet developed the social awareness to always exercise empathy, so are more likely to make missteps in their approach. Their instincts are predominately to mock things they don't understand and changing this mentality is something which can only be done through maturity and experience. I found this to be the case when I spoke with children about this very topic, their innocence revealed by their lack of appreciation as to why it is wrong or harmful for them to react in this way. 

A young lady sitting on a bench looking at the camera, with the words 'Share your story' overlaid.

Language

We cannot change this mindset overnight and the practicality of attempting to do so is flawed. However, what we can do and what we must all encourage, is to seek to adjust the language associated with stammering. 

Be it a teacher imploring a student to "slow down and take their time" or a manager telling a colleague to "calm down and breathe", even if they are intended to be helpful, these phrases only serve to heighten tension and cultivate a negative mindset towards public speaking and to stammering itself.

Speaking in front of a large crowd is nerve-racking even for the best of us. So, stammer or not, what we must do as adults is to look to find better ways of reacting to individuals stumbling on their words and change the language that we use to address it. Be it a teacher imploring a student to "slow down and take their time" or a manager telling a colleague to "calm down and breathe", even if they are intended to be helpful, these phrases only serve to heighten tension and cultivate a negative mindset towards public speaking and to stammering itself. 

For those who don't stammer, this may be a temporary fleeting moment of anxiety. But for those who do stammer, it can be an ever-enduring battle and requires all the positive reinforcements that society can provide. I am of the firm belief that the more we can do to make a person who stammers feel comfortable speaking to a crowd, the better off we will all be by having the pleasure of hearing their voice.

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