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Stammer blow - Nigel Phillips

Blog | By Nigel Phillips | Jun 07, 2022

George VI gives his VE Day message, 8th May 1945

A stammerer since childhood, Nigel Phillips enjoyed and endured a successful and stressful language-teaching career. Did anything help?

‘Phillips, what’s your school number?’ barked the teacher taking the register. I pursed my lips, trying to reply, but the reply wouldn’t come: ‘W, w, www, www, w…’ Then I burst into tears of shame at my inability to pronounce the simple words ‘One, two, three.’

Fast-forward 75 years. ‘What’s your name?’ asks the friendly receptionist at the speech-therapy clinic. ‘N, nn, n…’ Again I am speechless. A whole lifetime since my schooldays, I am still stammering and still plagued by deep embarrassment and frustration.

Most cases of stammering, including mine, are now thought by psychologists to be ‘developmental’, originating in faulty brain development during the process of learning to speak.

Many children stammer for some time in their early years but about two in three of them grow out of it. Stammering can also, though comparatively rarely, be caused by head injury, stroke or other neurological problems. At least one in 100 adults stammers – and four times as many men as women.

Stammering differs from person to person and from one situation to another. For me personally, the situation is helpful when I can speak with some authority, or am feeling relaxed, confident and free from pressure. I don’t stammer at all when singing – whether solo or in a group – or reading aloud to myself.

However, I can easily be thrown off my stride. A typical problem is being asked for a simple piece of information such as one’s name (or school number – see above!). The expectation of a quick and easy response can be paralysing. Conventional exchanges such as greetings and farewells are fraught with similar pressures, and it makes one feel so dumb – in both senses – not to be able to respond. Group conversations feel impenetrable. Phone calls of any kind are extremely stressful.

One might think that the study of foreign languages held few attractions for someone with a bad stammer. As it turns out, my life has revolved around little else. At school, my headmaster steered me in the direction of Classics, which I went on to study at university. During my National Service, I chose to take the Russian course in the Navy. My next and final move was to SOAS, where I was to spend 30 years learning and teaching Malay and its sister language Indonesian, and writing a PhD on Sijobang, a story from West Sumatran oral tradition.

Speech disorder notwithstanding, I plunged enthusiastically into these new and exotic languages.

The path was not entirely smooth. My stammering was largely responsible for my poor final results at Cambridge because I ducked the essential but, to me, dreadful task of reading my essays aloud to my supervisor and fellow students. Stammering was a daily torment while I was learning Russian. Meanwhile a brief speech-therapy course at Goldsmiths was useful – but no miracles occurred.

During my SOAS years, fascinating as they were in general, speech was still a battlefield, littered with failed therapies – hypnosis (useless for me) and the medication haloperidol (a rash experiment which triggered a clinical depression). My stammer insisted on accompanying me for life.

Indeed, a developmental stammer can’t be cured: at best, one learns from speech therapists how to speak more fluently. Some people manage their stammer very well with techniques ranging from breath management and relaxation of the vocal apparatus to speaking emphatically, loudly or rhythmically. These speech-therapy approaches – and stammering itself – are well-portrayed in The King’s Speech, about George VI’s stammer.

A more recent and, at first sight, improbable therapeutic tool is deliberate (or voluntary) stammering. The aim is to get one’s stammer right out in the open. By learning to stammer deliberately, the stammerer in time becomes less anxious about encountering involuntary blocks and experiences a greater sense of freedom and control.

Of late I’ve benefited from this form of therapy and I strive to put it into practice. Unfortunately, though, my speech is now as bad as ever because of the progressive effects of Parkinson’s disease, which I have had for 20 years. I also suspect that retirement, with the loss of my position as a teacher, has weakened my self-esteem and undermined my confidence in speaking. The growing loss of physical independence with age compounds the problem. All in all, I don’t expect ever to be free of anxiety and frustration when trying to make conversation.

People ask how a non-stammerer should behave in the presence of a stammerer. I would suggest neither ignoring nor overreacting to the stammer. Bear in mind that for many stammerers, social situations are very stressful; so keep the atmosphere as relaxed as possible. Encourage the stammerer to join the conversation, and allow them plenty of time to do so – without putting them under undue pressure.

Stammerers differ as to whether they like having sentences finished for them. Personally, I don’t. So ask the stammerer – and wait patiently for their answer as they struggle with their disability.

P.S. to stammerers: however discouraging your experiences of failure so far, don’t despair. Do get professional help and keep trying. Nil desperandum.