How to speak with someone who stutters
March 18, 2008 9:35 PM   Subscribe

What's the proper etiquette when you're speaking to someone with a stutter? Do you stutter? What are you thinking as it's happening?

I have a student with a stutter. When the word he's struggling to spit out is obvious, do I pretend he's not stuttering and just look him patiently in the eye and wait for it to come out? Would he feel offended or relieved if I finish the word for him?

Do you stutter? What does it feel like when you're trying to say a word but can't quite get it out in one piece? Can you see the word in your mind's eye but it just won't come out or does the word look fuzzy?
posted by HotPatatta to Human Relations (35 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking generally as a person with a disability, you don't say what age your student is, but in many cases it would prove quite helpful to simply ask them. That said, you can look here for basic info. Anecdotally, I know some people who stutter, and they unanimously prefer not having their words finished.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 9:52 PM on March 18, 2008

I stutter; I've never had anyone actually try to finish a word for me so I'm not sure if I'd like it or not. Most likely not, I'm well aware that I'm stuck and if I can't get the word out I'll usually give up and rephrase what I was saying. Everyone I interact with just waits patiently for me to get unstuck, acting as if I was only pausing to organize my thoughts, which seems to work well.
posted by jpeacock at 9:56 PM on March 18, 2008

What's the proper etiquette when you're speaking to someone with a stutter? Do you stutter?

I misinterpreted the question on the front page and almost answered "No, you should definitely NOT stutter just to fit in with the other person."

I don't stutter but I have worked alongside people who do, and they seem to not hate me much.

I think a combination of the answers so far is probably best. That is: be patient and ignore it, for the most part (jpeacock), but if it seems to be causing stress or if you have a good relationship, you can jump ahead sometimes (The World Famous) but most definitely NOT by saying the missing word for them as if they're unable (StrikeTheViol). That's insulting, I think.

In extreme cases, or if someone is genuinely in a hurry, I'd just answer whatever you "know" the question will be, and continue, the same way you might answer someone's question before they're finished, not because they're stuck on a word, but because you understand them already. Even then I'd use this sparingly, not every single time.

So if you can't wait it out, or decide NOT to in some cases... instead of finishing the word for them, just say "Right" or "Okay" or "Hai" or whatever... and continue your conversation.
posted by rokusan at 10:07 PM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Finishing the word would reinforce the belief in the stutter that he/she needs your help in conversation (other than being patient). I am not a speech therapist, but I would not recommend finishing words or sentences for a stutterer.

You could try nodding in affirmation if he's stuck, so he gets a positive reinforcement that you understand what he's trying to say, but are still respecting him enough to allow him to finish it on his own. It may help him get the word out sooner.

Looking straight into the eye when he is trying to bring a word out with difficulty may be counterproductive (depends on the stutterer I think), so you could try focusing on some other part of his face other than eyes and lips, and see if that helps.

It's not about seeing the word, or the word being fuzzy, as far as I know. There are numerous theories (and numerous proposed solutions too), with common ones being stutters thinking too fast (they already have jumped many words ahead in their mind than the one they are trying to say right now), or being stressed out because of fear that they will stutter on a particular word (and it eventually happens), or even because of physical contraction problems of the vocal chords.

As an end note, I would recommend reading the link for Teachers as given by another poster. Careful handling of the situation by teachers have been known to boost the confidence of many a stutterers.
posted by manish at 10:40 PM on March 18, 2008

Just let him talk. If you have the time, don't finish his sentences or interrupt him. Stuttering is extremely unpleasant and it is much easier for the stutterer just to shut up; you can make a positive contribution by respecting the ordeal this student is putting himself through by trying to communicate with you.

My qualification to answer this question is dual: I am a neurologist with an interest in stuttering and I also had a severe developmental stutter growing up. It was no picnic.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:04 PM on March 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

As a stutterer myself (it's quite mild, but can still get in the way).
What's the proper etiquette when you're speaking to someone with a stutter?
You don't have to do anything special, apart from maybe waiting slightly longer for them to say things. Like any other conversation, give them a chance to put their point in, and then respond.

Do you stutter? What are you thinking as it's happening?
Yep, I do. What do I think? lol, good question. Nothing different. it can be annoying, and it gets old very quickly trying to get something out. it can be embarrassing if someone is in a hurry and waiting for you to talk.

I have a student with a stutter. When the word he's struggling to spit out is obvious, do I pretend he's not stuttering and just look him patiently in the eye and wait for it to come out? Would he feel offended or relieved if I finish the word for him?
There's no concrete answer to this one. I get quite annoyed if someone insists on finishing my words. from StrikeTheViol: "I know some people who stutter, and they unanimously prefer not having their words finished."
But sometimes it can help me to finish the word. If you really want to know what they think, ask them! Better than guessing. I also second jpeacock, good advice.

What does it feel like when you're trying to say a word but can't quite get it out in one piece? Can you see the word in your mind's eye but it just won't come out or does the word look fuzzy? I don't have a typewritter in my head that gets jammed every so often. I assume I think of what I'm going to say like any other person, but then again there could be differences somewhere that cause the stutter. it usually feels like my throat's closed up, like my brain knows exactly what it wants to say and how to say it, just there's something in the way of getting it out. Or it could be the other way round... I'm not sure exactly how to explain it.

The main thing is: If you don't know, ask! If you aren't sure how to react to/treat your student, react as you would to anyone else, and treat him like anyone else. The only real difference is maybe a little bit more time needed, and slightly slower retorts.
posted by cofie at 11:15 PM on March 18, 2008

I have a new coworker who has a stutter. I didn't even notice for the first couple of weeks because we were training him, and that's distracting enough.

His stutter isn't very pronounced unless he's getting emotional about the topic, like when we're just BSing to kill time and happen across something that is moving to him. I don't finish his words or sentences for him. It's not a problem when he's working in the lab.

I may (strong maybe, like if he's around more than just this semester or if he brings it up) talk to him about it, but probably not.
posted by lilywing13 at 11:39 PM on March 18, 2008

Having attended a stutterer's support group*, the people there said one of the most annoying things is when people complete their words or sentences for them. Just let them have their say. They'll get to it, and by completing the thought themselves it will make them more confident next time and probably stutter less, over time.

*I am not a stutterer, but I had to attend the meeting as penance. I mock stutterers no longer.
posted by Happydaz at 12:01 AM on March 19, 2008

You might be interested in watching this documentary about people who deal with stuttering/stammering. I think the young girl specifically complained about people who finish words/sentences for her, but it's been a while since I watched it so I can't say for sure. In any case, I think it's a pretty good glimpse of what it's like to live with and try to overcome a significant stammer.
posted by stefanie at 12:05 AM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

do I pretend he's not stuttering and just look him patiently in the eye and wait for it to come out?

Waiting patiently for your stuttering student to finish talking isn't the same thing as "pretending he's not stuttering."

When I meet a stutterer, I use the time to calm myself down with a slow breath or two while I wait for them to finish, so I don't inadvertently send nervous or impatient signals that might be making it worse for them. I try to be aware of my face and keep it open and accepting if they get in a particularly bad spot; I imagine it's hard enough to deal with a stutter without seeing panic or fear in the listener's face.

It's actually kind of nice when you get in the habit of slowing yourself down to listen to a stuttering person in an accepting way. I also can't think of any reason to finish a sentence for a stuttering person, short of an emergency.
posted by mediareport at 12:33 AM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a speech therapist who works with high schoolers and my kids say they don't like having their words finished for them. I can imagine it would get annoying and feel condescending if someone finished my words for me.

If you work in a public school your student is probably either seeing the school's speech pathologist, or should be. Maybe you can ask her how to deal with this in the classroom.
posted by christinetheslp at 12:59 AM on March 19, 2008

I used to stutter as a child (and still have episodes occasionally) and I nth the general consensus above. For me it's like a logjam of thought that has trouble getting out in words (words and I don't get along so well), probably compounded by nervous self-consciousness that I'm stuttering. Being patient with the stutterer will almost certainly (over time, at least) reduce the effect of the second reason, if not the first.
posted by neckro23 at 1:43 AM on March 19, 2008

i would ask him what you can do to help him participate in class discussions (would it help if he could write his answer out first? or is there a way you can help him when he gets stuck? or is it better if you just wait?).
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:43 AM on March 19, 2008

I have a mild stutter (or stammer, as we say in UK English) and the general attitude that I try to communicate to people around me is 'OK, I have a stammer, I'm comfortable with that, it doesn't bother me and I hope it won't bother you either'. Most people seem to understand and accept that. However, I have endless arguments with my father (also a stammerer -- it often runs in families) who tells me that I take the problem far too lightly, and that my stammer is a crippling social stigma that will ruin my life unless I Do Something About It. There's quite a profound philosophical difference here between the 'accept your disability' (him) and 'disability? what disability?' (me) schools of thought. I won't labour the point except to say that, as far as I'm concerned, the 'disability' is caused not by the stammer itself but by the reactions of other people -- that is, the stammer is not something 'inside' me, but something that occurs in the process of social interaction with others. So I'm very glad you asked this question, because I think it's important for people to understand that a stammer is not a given fact about a person -- it's how they behave towards that person that 'makes' the stammer.

Things to avoid:

1. 'Stop, stop! Now, take a deep breath, start again, and this time speak slowly.' (I don't get this reaction much any more, but I got it all the time when I was a child, when my stammer was a good deal worse than it is now.)
2. Interrupting me in the middle of a sentence. (Not usually intended to be rude -- it's often a sign that the other person is nervous and flustered, so I try to put them at their ease.)
3. Finishing my sentences for me (and usually getting them wrong). Damn you, sentence finishers!
4. 'I do understand .. it must be so frustrating for you -- all those thoughts bubbling up inside you faster than you can get the words out.' (It's a flattering assumption, that I have a stammer because I think so quickly -- but that's not actually how a stammer works.)
5. Acute discomfort -- obviously thinking 'how awful .. but I'd better say nothing and pretend he's normal'. (This is where the 'philosophical difference' that I mentioned above starts to kick in. Who exactly has the problem here -- is it the stammerer, or the listener?)

So what does it feel like? The closest analogy I can come up with is the idea of a 'feedback loop', as though the words coming out of my mouth are ever so slightly out of synch with the words I hear myself speaking. It gets worse when I'm tired, so I always make sure to get a good night's sleep if I'm doing any public speaking the next day. Alcohol has an interesting double-edged effect: the immediate effect (as the first glass of wine hits my system) is to give me much greater fluency, but too much alcohol and my stammer suddenly gets a whole lot worse. Public speaking is generally not a problem for me (I can stand up in a lecture-hall and speak to 100 people without any difficulty), but I find it much harder to join in casual conversations around the watercooler ('so, whaddya doing this weekend?' -- that sort of thing). Conversation with two or three people is no problem, conversation in a group of six or seven people is much more difficult. Telephone conversations are fine as long as I can pick up conversational cues from the other person, but I sometimes get thrown by long silences on the other end of the phone, so if I'm making an important phone-call I generally try to prepare first by making a few written notes of what I want to say. None of this may apply to your student (stammering affects different people in different ways), but it's worth bearing in mind that a person who stammers will probably find some sorts of social interaction much easier than others. Also, that stammerers often have extremely good social antennae -- a marked ability to 'read' what other people are thinking.

The basic paradox of stammering is that it has a physical cause (somewhere in the wiring of the brain -- probably with a genetic element) but a psychological effect. Trying to psychoanalyze a stammer is (IMO) a waste of time -- as well try to psychoanalyze blue eyes or red hair. But treating it as a purely physical phenomenon ignores the fact that, as I said above, it exists in social interaction. It's not 'in here', it's 'out there'.
posted by verstegan at 4:48 AM on March 19, 2008 [11 favorites]

A stutterer here: Please avoid finishing sentences if at all possible. I know that I always choose my words very carefully; when people try to finish sentences for me, they often get it wrong, in whole or part. Which is doubly frustrating, because after wasting so much time getting the damn word out, I need to spend more time repeating what I was trying to say. Obviously, if you're in a rush and the word really is obvious - "are you saying the building's on fire? let's get out of here!" - you might interrupt, but otherwise, just let them talk.

I wouldn't "look him patiently in the eye" until he gets the word out, either. For me, at least, that would add to the pressure, probably making it harder to get out of the stuttering loop. Be attentive (and be outwardly calm yourself - don't get annoyed or concerned), but don't sit there staring.

What am I thinking when I stutter? Primarily "damn it, not again." It's definitely not the case that the word is "fuzzy" in my mind's eye. I have no way of knowing what word I'll end up stuttering on, though I'm a bit more apt to stutter at the beginning rather than the end of sentences. I know precisely what I'm going to say, but it feels as if wiring between brain and mouth is faulty. It's definitely got a psychological component, though. The stutter's more likely to show up in high-stress situations and when I'm having a passionate discussion about something - one-to-one conversations and small groups are the worst for me.

Really, though, ask your student. He might have different preferences, and other ideas on what you should do to help.
posted by ubersturm at 5:23 AM on March 19, 2008

I had a bad one as a kid, to the point that one of the other kids who stuttered used to translate for me. There were a few in the neighborhood, so we never felt alone or special, it was just something some people did, some people didn't.
I generally don't finish anything for people (although usually it's on the phone so it's different), but in my field, I can ask yes or no questions and that seems to go over well as a technique. I used to hear from one guy who had it so bad that when he got hung on a word, he would never get it out. In his case, I'd wait a while, and if it just wasn't going to happen this time, I'd offer a word choice in an inquiring tone of voice, and he'd say yes, thank you, and forge on. I think it's pretty individual, and you get a feeling for how they'd like you to act fairly quickly. I currently have one guy who does not stutter when he answers the phone at all, then when he recognizes your voice, it kicks in. Apparently, strangers are OK, if it's someone he "already knows", it's a different brain circuit.
People are just all different, and it would be better to ask than to flounder visibly, but just waiting will also work if you don't wish to bring it up for now.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:42 AM on March 19, 2008

I stutter and second uberstrums point "they often get it wrong" This pisses me off. In discussions involving differences of opinion I sometimes recognize this as an attempt to redirect the point that I am making. Do not do it.
posted by Raybun at 7:21 AM on March 19, 2008

Given that evidence for it being neurological and related to compulsive behaviors generally, I wonder if the reason why stutterers find it objectionable to have their words finished for them--more so, it seems, than mere "conversational space invasion" might indicate--is partially due to the feeling of frustration associated with a baulked OCD behavior or tic. (Info here and here.)

Any stutterers (ideally, stutters with other OCD symptoms and/or tics) able to confirm/deny?

If this is so, it would lend further weight to the arguments for patience, except in emergencies.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:50 AM on March 19, 2008

I stutter, not badly, usually when I am very stressed/tired or very passionate about something. I think it catches people off guard because I don't do it very often. Some people are fine about it and ignore it, but I have also had people (some "friends" included say to me, "g-g-g-et it out" or repeat my stutter back to me and giggle. This is, I hope everyone will agree, rude, very rude. As for finishing the word, I find that frustrating. I feel like I am being told they don't have enough time for me, my conversation isn't important, etc.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 8:02 AM on March 19, 2008

Having recently overcome my stuttering, here are some things that I appreciated/disliked in regard to other people's reaction to my speech:
  1. I absolutely hated it when people finished my words/thoughts. My sister (with the best of intention) got into a habit of doing this when we were kids and soon began taking over entire conversations people initiated with me. People began asking her questions of myself as if I was not standing there; I got a lot of people talking over me or completely ignoring things I said. Many times she (or one of my parents) would answer the questions directed at me incorrectly or sensitive information that I did not wish to reveal. It was humiliating and made me feel powerless. People began responding to my presence by avoiding eye contact and excluding me in conversations completely unless someone was there to speak for me. I spent most of my teenage/young adult years unable to give more than one-word answers because I felt like my manner of speaking was just. incredibly. irritating. to people.
  2. It made me feel even more self-conscious and stupid if the person or people I spoke to would shoot each other smirks or snickered when I stuttered. I had found it helpful and kind when people would listen and pay full attention to me and not make a joke or point out in some way that I "messed up." Sometimes people would try to be "nice" and after noticing that I stuttered would begin talking to me in short phrases like I was a child who did not understand big adult words. Ugh. It's akin to someone speaking in baby talk or mocking you in a situation where you (as an educated adult) do not speak a foreign language fluently. While you may not be able to speak articulately, it is not as if you are completely devoid of knowledge in basic human interaction.
  3. The whole "whoaaa slow down" or "STOP. TAKE A BREATH" commands were especially degrading.
If it's of any help to your friend, or any stutter-ers reading this, I managed to get my stuttering under control without help from a professional.

If it's of any help to your friend, or any stutter-ers reading this, I managed to get my stuttering under control without help from a professional.

The thing that seemed to helped most was to objectively observe other peoples' interactions with each other and understanding what I liked and disliked when people interacted with me, and applying the 'rules' that I found most respectful and gracious to every person I spoke to, in every situation.

It makes people feel more comfortable around me, which in turn makes me feel comfortable around them, making it easier for both parties to communicate effectively. I have gained much respect doing this, which has changed my confidence and outlook in life completely. The stuttering stopped at this point.

It's tough when people want to help a stutterer, because trying to coach someone through their speech problem may be embarrassing to them despite someone's best intentions.

Hope this helps.
posted by zippity at 10:01 AM on March 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

oops, I don't know why that one sentence got repeated.
posted by zippity at 10:04 AM on March 19, 2008

I used to work with someone who stuttered terribly. There was one moment of low comedy during one conversation when I had a case of Influenza A which had temporarily wrecked my voice; I couldn't talk, he couldn't stop talking.

I found the best approach was to just relax and give him the time he needed. I'm an impatient person at the best of times and I'm afraid I too often rudely cut people off and finish their sentences. So with him I made an extra effort not to do that. I noticed that the more relaxed and patient I was about it, the better he was.
posted by orange swan at 10:37 AM on March 19, 2008

One of my English Professors in University stuttered, most often when he was really excited about the topic of the day.

I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to finish his sentances. It was a little weird at first, but by the end of the semester it was just another quirky Prof lecture habit, and one of the less annoying ones - I vastly preferred him to the Professor who spoke in a complete monotone when giving lectures.

I've known a few other stutterers, or 'stammerers', and almost always I just wait and let them finish. Occasionally it gets a little frustrating, especially when I 'know' what they're going to say next. Being wrong shakes me out of that attitude soon enough.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that I agree with the posters above. Let them finish. Don't finish their words/sentances for them. Be polite and attentive like you would with anyone else.
posted by sandraregina at 11:37 AM on March 19, 2008

Me? I'm not offended when someone adds the word I am struggling with. I'm trying to communicate something, and having the listener help isn't an issue. It's very similar to not remembering something, and pausing as a friend remembers a name or word for me.

The issue is how your student feels. Try adding the word for him, he will either smile in relief or snarl at you.

In my case, I catch people unaware when first meeting, and many parody my speech. I've developed a good snarl. Having someone finish a word is hardly an OMG moment.
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 7:19 PM on March 19, 2008

I had a good friend, now sadly passed on, who stuttered. He wasn't really self-conscious of it as none of his friends ever made an issue of it. We'd just wait for him to get it out. If someone pointed it out or finished a word for him, he'd get slightly annoyed, but not angry. Lord help anyone who made fun of him for it, though, as he'd get violently angry and so would his brothers, who were usually with him. I miss that dude. He died of an overdose in his brother's arms a few years ago.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:11 PM on March 19, 2008

My new housemate has a serious stutter and a strong Polish accent. I'm slightly deaf. Cue some serious difficulties in communicating... Suggestions above will help I think.
posted by pots at 4:35 AM on March 20, 2008

If you want me to hate you forever and never want to see your face again, there are three simple little words that you can say to me:

"Spit it out."
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:36 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I recall an experience with someone who stuttered; when it began I got a strong sense that he was nervous and distressed, so after he completed his first sentence, I just told him as friendly as possible to take his time.

I tend to be empathetic and could relate with his feelings of embarrassment, humiliation and/or being self-conscious. So I tried to take all that out of the equation.

After that his stutter mostly went away.

Not saying that relaxing is the key, just that it worked in that scenario. The last thing I wanted to do was press him, finish his thoughts or look like I was hanging on every word.
posted by bwg at 6:42 AM on March 20, 2008

I once worked at the same place as Barry Yeoman, who (1) has a stutter and (2) is an awesome guy. (These two facts are, as far as I can tell, not related.) It was awkward listening to him speak until I heard him read one of his articles aloud - I can't recall what it was, exactly, but some story about him encountering some less-than-friendly folk and telling them, "Yes! Yes, I have a stutter." Hearing him say that out loud turned it, for me, from the awkward verbal elephant in the room to something that he owned up to and had to put up with, so I figured I might as well put up with it too. I'm not sure if that makes any sense, but anyway, it made me realize that there was just no use in my being embarrassed on his behalf, and I was able to look past the stutter to the awesome.

In the article I linked: The other lesson my stutter has offered me is a simple one: Shut up and listen. That'd be my advice. If you try to finish someone's sentence for them, it's feels less like listening and more like "so you're done talking, right?"

(Barry, if you're reading this and I've got your story all wrong, I apologize!)
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:12 PM on March 20, 2008

I'm in a rather odd position with respect to stuttering. I have a mild-to-moderate stutter, but only when I speak in Spanish, which is not my native language.

So, as a person who normally doesn't have to deal with this problem, I've had the odd opportunity to experience what it's like. Stutter tourism, if you will.

From this little bit of experience, there is a big difference between waiting patiently while I get my words out, and pretending I'm not stuttering. I really appreciate the former, while the latter usually manifests as avoiding my gaze, as though they're just wishing this horrible part of the conversation would stop. That's more uncomfortable for everybody.
posted by gurple at 3:30 PM on March 21, 2008

I stuttered for a couple years around age 10. My family handled it very poorly. Don't degrade your children over it. :( Anyway. For me, it was about having a burst of thought that I couldn't get out fast enough and I always felt I had to get it out very quickly or not at all. I just grew out of it, I guess? Every now and then, very rarely, I go through a couple weeks of very minor stuttering. Most people don't even notice (I think) because when I realize it, I automatically start elongating many words even though that sounds bad, too. But, for me, that longer syllable or two or three (usually at beginning of sentence) helps me stop it altogether. It's typically a general anxious/hurried thing for me, I think.

Things that hurt more than helped:
- negative remarks (quit acting retarded, dumb, slow down, etc)
- telling me to come back when I can talk normal
- finishing my words/sentences for me
- walking off mid-sentence
- rushing me (ugh)
- dismissive attitudes/comments

The easiest people to talk to were those that didn't stare at me while I struggled. They would multi-task, but not walk off rudely. If they stared, it was more stressful because I was more aware of the problem and that created more stress, more awareness, on and on.

The worst experience I've had with a stutterer in my adult life was a coworker at a former job. He had a thick South African accent and spent too much time on various speakerphones. The phone distance + accent made it a billion times harder to understand. He seemed much better when he wasn't the center of the conversation, though.
posted by ick at 5:36 PM on March 25, 2008

gurple: Thank you! I never thought about stuttering in a second language because mine is Latin. (I don't do conversational Latin, so didn't think about that.)
I got a guy on the phone the last couple of days who stutters in English. (I don't know what his first language is, but he's not from around here.)
Apparently, he can do the first half of a sentence, and then when he gets to the second half, he has vapor lock. The second half, he just freezes up. I waited until he gave up, and just sort of pretended he had lost his train of thought. I just asked a yes or no question, like maybe he was having trouble explaining it, and he said yes or no and went on to the first half of the next sentence. (His English is fine, just a little bit light on vocabulary, I think he might have been freezing when he couldn't find exactly the right word.)
If you had not mentioned stuttering only in a second language, I'd never have thought of it, and I would not have realized that's what it was.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 7:23 PM on March 27, 2008

I'm dating cofie and from the POV of a non-stutterer, sometimes you just don't notice it after a while. I remember being so surprised when he was talking about stuttering after a few months of us being together, because I had honestly stopped noticing it. (And sometimes I end up stuttering too, not consciously. Odd.)

The trick is to just let them speak normally. Some people upthread asked why stutterers don't like it when people complete their words for them; from what I understand from cofie, it makes him feel like people aren't really listening to him - they're just waiting for their chance to talk. So they cut him off quickly and go on with their conversation, and he gets left out. I've had to learn how to deal with that because I tend to do that to everyone - but since dating cofie I've learnt how to wait and it's made me a far better listener.

As for second languages: cofie speaks Danish and he stutters in that one too, though it's usually the longer words that trip him up.
posted by divabat at 3:03 PM on March 28, 2008

I didn't catch this thread until much later, but I hope you'll still see it. I'm dealing directly with your questions, not with the subsequent replies.

Broach the subject with your student in a private setting. That takes the pressure off both of you. We don't mind being recognized as a stutterer, we just hate being pitied or ostracized. Find out how they would like their particular stutter to be handled. Ask her/him if they would prefer to not be called upon in class. Most stuttering students are petrified of being called upon to speak without proper preparation on their own part. Some stutterers don't mind having their words finished, but others will go into complete blockage if you do ... which is why it's good to ask.

Be sure to emphasize that you clearly understand that a stutter has nothing to do with lack of intelligence; tests have long confirmed stutterers are generally brighter than average. There's no attitude more insulting. Also emphasize you understand that stuttering is not caused by psychological maladies ... we are not stuttering because of child abuse, dreams of axe murders, or other manias. We've had enough people trying to involuntarily psychoanalyze our stuttering. Latest tests are showing abnormalities in the wiring of the brain ... some studies I've read about see a resemblance between a stuttering blockage and epileptic episodes. Much work is being done with delayed auditory feedback, and there is a GABA-receptor drug called Pagoclone that is showing promise for some stutterers.

So, we don't want to be a special case, or get special attention. We certainly don't want to slow the class down. We work very hard to seem 'normal'. Just don't call on us unless we raise our hands. If we do so, and our response sounds simplistic, keep in mind that stutterers can rarely express the eloquence that remains trapped in our heads. Don't rephrase to make our responses "sound better" or "more intelligent" ... just respond with your own usual eloquence. No matter how severe the blockage, remain as unruffled as possible. With each successful attempt to participate, fluent or not, the stutterer will build on that success and be more fluent the next time around.

Remember, many students take their cues on how to behave toward the stutterer from you, the instructor.

I am a stutterer, and make no bones about it to strangers. For me, mentioning the fact takes the pressure off, and I then rarely have major disfluencies. My stuttering severity varies from none to moderate, depending on stress, moon phases, or gamma rays ... I'm never sure. I work hard on it, and am proud of the fact that most people never need to be prewarned of my occasional disfluencies.

We humans are social animals; there are few things more harrowing than being cut off from your fellow humans by an impediment to communication that has no definitive cause and no reliable cure. Research for stuttering is crawling at slower-than-snail's-pace. Medicine is not rushing to give us hope. What would *you* feel like if you couldn't express yourself when and how you wanted to? How different would you feel if you knew that situation might never change? On a bad day, it can seem hopeless. A truly awful stutter that never ameliorates is a grim existence.

Personally, I've adopted the 'legato' speech style to get over the consonant humps on bad days. I can't recommend it enough, it's great. Turn the breath on, don't turn it off until the sentence or phrase is complete; slightly soften consonants for smooth flow, but without lisping. [This is why singing is helpful; Carly Simon is one of those rare female stutterers, and singing helped her get over her challenges.] Some use rhythm as a crutch to further assist legato speech. Using this technique, I can be reasonably fluent even during a 'bad patch' ... oftentimes without the other person in the conversation noticing. Creative use of pauses (watch old films and pre-70's speeches), a neglected conversational skill in our modern times, is invaluable.

For me, when I reach a blockage, it's like my tongue has become petrified wood. It just won't move once I begin to voice that particular consonant. From week to week, it's never the same consonant, but when one gets stuck, it'll be that same one catching me for a day or two. Sometimes a consonant sound will fly through when followed by one vowel, but use that consonant with a different vowel and ... block. My mind races to find a replacement word, at a billion miles an hour.

Every stutterer has an extensive thesaurus in their heads, with which to improvise on the fly ... when we know which consonant to be cautious of, we're doing this word-replacement without you noticing. But it's a hell of a challenge to find a replacement word that is specific enough to replace that which we are trying to say while in the middle of a blockage. Hence the deer-in-the-headlights look on our faces. We're multitasking, at a time when multitasking is a really, really bad idea.

If you are interested in a more generalized viewpoint of stuttering and some courses for remedy, pick up an older book, "Stuttering: The Disorder of Many Theories" by Gerald Jonas. It's out of print now, and there are newer tomes that reflect current gadgets like the "SpeechEasy", but none express the feeling of being a stutterer with such empathy. The author gets it. He was a stutterer for a time. Gives you a complete history from which to judge, from ancient times to today. Remedies, old or new, tend to work for only a short time, until one becomes accustomed to them. Then the malady too often reestablishes itself at the former intensity (sometimes at greater intensity), generating a period of deep depression and withdrawal. Then we're back to the same old tired routine again. That is why we're all so chary of 'miracle therapies.' Better to stutter along with fluency crutches we know work. Building up and dashing hopes destroys one's will to continue battling.

So talk with your student. Put them at ease. let them know you recognize their challenges, and that you stand ready to help them achieve their goal ... finishing that course with an "A". Knowing you're on their side will help them immensely.
posted by crazyhorse at 5:40 PM on March 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

An anon comment from someone that wanted to add their 2 cents:
Another stammerer here (one of crazyhorse's "rare females"), but posting anonymously as I don't want to be one on the internet - damnit, that's the whole point of text communication. Came to this late via the podcast.

I'm a mild, moderate or severe stammerer depending on the context. I don't have any problem with people saying the word I'm stuck on (finishing the whole sentence is going a bit far) as long as they get it absolutely correct. For instance, I work with someone whose name I cannot say without significant problems. If I'm talking to someone else about her and it's clear whom I mean it would make me quite happy if they just said the damn woman's name (I'd also like her to change it to something I can say). In contrast to people who've said they feel it shows a lack of respect for what they are going to say, I feel in some situations it can show respect for the conversation and that the other speaker wants to go on with it. But someone finishing what I'm saying wrongly can make my fluency much worse. I agree that there is no reason why you shouldn't ask your student what he feels about you completing words for him, probably as part of a larger discussion, possibly by email, about how he'd like to be treated.

Signs of impatience, as several people have said, are usually counterproductive, though sometimes if they make me angry I can get pretty fluent. Usually not in a helpful way though.

bwg said "I just told him as friendly as possible to take his time". I realise this was meant kindly and seems to have worked for the person bwg was talking to, but it winds me up something chronic. It implies - to me - that the person I'm talking to is assuming that I haven't thought of doing that for myself, and that they think it's a simple problem that could be solved if I "just took my time". Grr.

As for the other specific questions. When I'm stammering I may be thinking "gods, not again,", trying to think of a word starting with S that replaces the word I can't say, or I may be thinking what to have for tea. To some extent I think it's a non-question - like asking what someone's thinking as they limp, for instance. For those of us who stammer it's often so much a part of our lives that we don't think anything particular about it when it happens. The only time when I do think something pretty standard is when I am stammering for the first time with someone I haven't stammered with before - I know it can look pretty odd (I've met my fair share of stammerers too) so I'll be worrying about that.

As for what it feels like, to me it feels as if the word is stuck in my throat and that I'm on a repetition loop, knowing that at some point something will click, possibly after some magic number of repetitions, and I'll be able to say it, or find some way to get round it (ranging from word substitution to leaving the room). I'm interested in aeschenkarnos's suggestion about OCD - I've wondered about this myself, particularly after reading Amy Wilensky's memoir Passing for Normal about Tourette's and OCD, and would value ikkyu2's take on this.

The only other thing it might be useful to say is that you will know when your student is overtly stammering, but you won't know when he's covering it up and perhaps not quite saying what he wants to, or not speaking at all not because he has nothing to say but because he can't say anything at all. You may want to talk to him about ways he could let you know if there's something he wants to contribute but needs formal recognition to start (such as putting his hand up and you asking him what he has to say - informal group discussions can be hell for stammerers). And let him know clearly if you will be assessing verbal contributions (I'm still slightly bitter about a class years ago in which I said nothing, not knowing that it mattered). I realise this borders on special treatment, but unlike crazyhorse I don't see that that's a problem. But then I like to get my say one way or another - even if anonymously.

Oh yeah - sorry, I'm ranting now (yes, I do this verbally too) - don't give into the temptation of telling your student, in an excited way, about any "miracle cures" you hear about. He'll have come across them too if he's interested.
posted by mathowie at 2:43 PM on April 15, 2008

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