Word substitution rarely worked when I spoke French

Claire Norman: close-up

When Claire Maillet chose to study French at university, she knew it would it would have its challenges. Here she writes about developing social phobia and how her placement in France made her realise she couldn't hide away any longer.

I was only five years old when I first stammered. At the time I was so young that I didn't think it strange. When I was little I was shy in general, so my stammering didn't affect my behaviour much, but I never understood why I was the only person at school and in my family who couldn't say exactly what I wanted, whenever I wanted. As a result, I realised that I was developing a social phobia. 

Until my teens I only stammered on words that started either with 're-' or a vowel, and for years I substituted those words with others that I could say without problems. A few children laughed at me during my schooling, but in hindsight I understand — for a child, anything that isn’t 'normal' seems amusing. Teenagers and adults who make fun of those who stammer are inexcusable.

My stammering made me feel less intelligent than other girls, so I didn't talk in order to avoid being embarrassed.

During my teenage years, though, I stammered on any word, and found substitution became more and more difficult. I attended a few speech therapy courses which would improve the stammering for a few months but then stopped influencing it, so it was back to square one. I didn't talk much in class, even though I often knew the right answers. In a selective high school, my stammering made me feel less intelligent than other girls, so I didn't talk in order to avoid being embarrassed.

at university

I received good A-Level marks and, aged 18, I went to the University of Warwick to study French. I knew my choice of degree would be risky because of the emphasis on oral communication. However, French was the subject in which I excelled the most in school, and I didn’t want to choose another degree only to mitigate the amount of oral communication involved. I also knew that the third year of my degree — the mandatory year abroad — would cause problems, but I thought I'd deal with that when the time came.

For the first two years of my degree, like in school, I didn’t voluntary talk in classes, except when asked a question. In lectures with 200 peers I never asked any questions — I would send an e-mail to the lecturer afterwards if I didn't understand something. 

Claire at graduation
Claire at graduation

More than anything in the world I just wanted to be like the others; I wanted to talk freely instead of relying on the written word. The oral classes scared the living daylights out of me. Even though the groups were small, I couldn't say anything. The teacher in these classes was a language assistant — a young French adult who was helping us. I found that their understanding of stammering, like that of a few other teachers, was almost non-existent. I reported my stammer to my lecturers early in the semester, asking for more time to talk when I needed it, but it didn't give me enough confidence to contribute in classes.

Placement in France

For my year abroad I chose to work as a language assistant and was placed in a high school in Cherbourg-Octeville. Despite a few positives to the placement, I firmly believe that my stammering marred my experience. I spoke to my French colleagues soon after I arrived, pointing out my stammer and the ways they could help me. I was really grateful that they addressed this with their students, stating that there would be no tolerance for mockery.

During the summer that followed I decided that I could no longer live by hiding from the outside world.

The real problem for me was social interactions. I lived with Spanish and German roommates, who were great, and our only common language was French so we had to practice it. However, I found that shopping and socialising with others so difficult. Word substitution rarely worked when I spoke in French, and my social anxiety grew. As a result, I spent most of my year abroad in my bedroom. After being quite scarred by my months in France, during the summer that followed I decided that I could no longer live by hiding from the outside world.

No awareness

At the beginning of my final year at Warwick, I arranged a meeting with the Student Support team to ask for more time during the oral exam. This was a large portion of my final grade and I was terrified of being unfairly penalised because of my stammer. The person I spoke with gave the following advice, which still haunts me today: "Just breathe and imagine the examiners naked."

Share your story

I was upset. It was clear they knew nothing about stammering, only techniques recommended for those with anxiety disorders. I wondered whether there were students across the UK receiving similar 'advice'. I decided to do something about it and that's how the Stammerers Through University Consultancy (STUC) was born — I wanted to raise awareness and increase support for people who stammer at university. A lecturer advised me to suggest my idea to the uni’s Social Enterprise team, who could donate £500 to new social initiatives. They awarded me the funding in 2013, and you can read more about in my article The Stammerers Through University Consultancy.

See our In education section for information and advice on getting on at uni.