Speaking Without Stammering

The Oscar-winning movie, The King's Speech, focused the world's attention on coping with stuttering. Here,  Dr. Ian Ellis-Jones explains how mindfulness can help manage the speech disorder.

Colin Firth as King George VI, and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, in The King's Speech.

Recently my wife and I saw the Anglo-Australian film The King’s Speech. The film, which is a must-see, depicts how the man who became King George VI learned to manage his pronounced stammer. In this YouTube video leading actor Colin Firth speaks to Katie Couric about his role as George VI.

Stammering (more commonly known as stuttering in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) is a disorder that affects the control and co-ordination of speech movements with the result that there is an interruption in the flow, that is, fluency, of speech. (I will use the word “stammering” in this blog in light of its usage in the British film The King’s Speech and in other quoted articles from the UK, but the terms stammering and stuttering both mean exactly the same thing.)

The exact cause of stammering is still unknown, although there is growing evidence that the condition is neurological in nature and causation (see this YouTube video). Whatever the cause or causes of the disorder, it is a problem which afflicts many people. I knew from when I was a youngster that King George VI had the speech disorder but it was not until recent times that I became aware of how an Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (portrayed in the film by Geoffrey Rush) assisted Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI) manage his stammer.

Mindfulness can be of assistance with the problem of stammering. The British Stammering Association has on its website an interesting article about a course for stammering based on Mindfulness principles and approaches being run at London’s City Lit.

Often people who stammer suffer from anxiety-related difficulties, although anxiety itself is not the cause of the speech disorder. Yes, stammering itself is not caused by anxiety or emotional trauma. People tend to stammer more when they are tired, upset, anxious, excited or nervous, but those things are not the cause of the disorder. Nevertheless, those who stammer often experience the signs of anxiety when they focus, not unnaturally, on past experiences and future predictions. Mindfulness focuses on the present as opposed to the past or the future, and can assist here.

Those who stammer know all too well that saying to themselves “I don’t want to stammer” or “I will not stammer” is almost invariably self-defeating. The reason is obvious. Affirmations can be useful with certain types of problems, but not with a problem of this kind. The metaphysical “law of indirectness” (i.e. don’t attempt to put a thought or problem out of one’s mind directly but rather let the problem slip from the sphere of conscious analysis) is the right way to proceed. Don’t try … instead, let.

In Zen Buddhism there is the story of the Zen master who says to his pupil, “One must never think of the white monkey,” if you want enlightenment. You can guess what happens. Thinking about not thinking about the white monkey is the same as thinking about the white monkey. Thus, thinking about not stammering is the same as thinking about stammering. “This” and “not this” are the same thing.

Mindfulness can help those who stammer to speak in the moment … no matter what happens … that is, to be really present in the experience of the moment, and not to worry about the outcome. Of course, success is not instantaneous. It takes much practice and perseverance.

Research suggests that the sooner treatment is commenced, the better. Treatment is ultimately quicker and easier in the pre-school years compared to treatment of school-aged children and adults. In the case of King George VI his stammer never entirely disappeared but diminished to occasional hesitations. Despite some intimations to the contrary in the film The King’s Speech, Logue never actually held out to the Duke (and later King) that he could effect a “cure” with a man who was just two months off 31 at the time he first presented himself to Logue for treatment. It was on 19 October 1926 that the then Duke of York, aged 30, met Logue for the first time. They would work together until the Duke—who became King George VI on 11 December 1936—died 26 years later on February 6, 1952.

Here is the King’s radio address of 3 September 1939 on the outbreak of World War II which is read by Firth in the film. A brief portion of the King’s final annual Christmas address, in 1951, which was recorded in sections and then edited together (due to the King’s poor lung capacity as a result of lung cancer and the removal of his left lung), can be found here.

Finally, here is another article about mindfulness and stammering which may be of interest.