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Monday, October 18, 2021

Column: A regal stutter

While watching the Golden Globes on Sunday, aside from critiquing some “interesting” clothing choices, I was cheering for one movie in particular: The King’s Speech. I must admit that I let out a small victory yell when Colin Firth won the globe for “Best Actor in a Movie Drama.” Although I am a sucker for any movie involving Colin Firth (a.k.a. Mr. Darcy), this film is truly a must-see. It touches on a topic that I feel the general public should be more informed about: stuttering.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film yet, head down to Regal Cinemas 5 on G Street and buy a ticket. Now. (I promise you will like it. It has a 95 percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com)

The biopic follows the life of Britain’s King George VI (Colin Firth), his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffery Rush). After his older brother, King Edward VIII, abdicates the throne in order to marry an American, “Bertie” (George VI) must walk the walk and talk the talk of a royal. But, he has a problem doing the latter.

The audience discovers that Bertie has had a problem with stuttering since he was a child. (The Brits call it a “stammer.”) Especially with the ever-increasing presence of radio during his reign, he cannot avoid the arena of public speaking. His wife seeks out the help of the unconventional speech therapist Logue. Alongside the topics of royal scandal and pre-WWII Britain, the movie chronicles the on-again, off-again “bromance” that develops between the king and his therapist.

The film does a brilliant job of capturing the pity and frustration that society might associate with stuttering. And, I love that the movie is shedding light on a problem that I presume not a lot of people know anything about. It’s not like you see the great orators of our time stuttering on TV. Usually, a stutter is something that people like to hide.

Stuttering is a speech disorder where either words, syllables or other sounds are prolonged or repeated, creating a disruption in the natural flow of speech. Firth’s character also seems to have silent blocks, where he finishes one word, but cannot continue on to say the next.

“The more popular term is stuttering,” says Radha Makker, a speech-language pathologist in Novato, Calif. “But, we treat [the problem] as fluency of speech versus disfluency of speech. Patients know what they want to say. They just might have trouble physically saying it.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 3 million Americans, both children and adults, are affected by this disorder. Sometimes the disfluency starts in childhood. Other times, it starts later on in life.

“There is really no evidence proving if the disorder arises from either physical or psychological situations. Recent research has found that the speech disorder can be genetic, especially between fathers and daughters,” Makker said.

For some, certain situations, people or feelings can trigger the disfluency. For others, none of these factors play a role; their disorder can be completely random. In the film, emotions play a large role in the king’s speech disfluency. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Logue attempts to delve into the psychological background of Bertie’s stammer.

There are different approaches to therapy for disfluency.

“Typically, a lot of the therapy has to do with getting to the root of the emotional component before targeting the actual physical disfluency,” Makker said. “Figuring out how patients feel about it and talking about it is important. There is a counseling aspect to it.”

Teasing, bullying and the anxiety of having the problem can all contribute to the problem itself.

Depending on the type of disfluency, speech-language pathologists utilize different treatments. In the film, Logue uses exercises like singing and shouting profanity in order to promote fluency. Most current therapies are focused around regulating breathing, speaking more slowly, and moving on from using short syllable words to more complex responses. There are also electronic devices that act somewhat like hearing aids to repeat a speaker’s voice so that they feel as if they are speaking in unison, which can increase fluency.

Currently, there is no cure for stuttering. There are ways to manage it and reduce it, but there are very few cases where it completely goes away. When speaking with a person with a disfluency problem, patience is the best policy. As the film reminds us, we all have a voice that deserves to be heard.

CORRIE JACOBS wants to know how you feel about disfluency (and Colin Firth). Reach her at cljacobs@ucdavis.edu.

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