Fluent speech is speech that is smooth, forward-moving, unhesitant and effortless. Any break in fluent speech is called a dysfluency. Everybody experiences dysfluencies from time to time, they are for example fillers (eh, ah), hesitancies, repetitions of whole words or phrases, and revisions.
Stuttering is speech in which more dysfluencies are present than is considered average.

Stutterers experience different dysfluencies than 'normal' speakers. Characteristic for stuttering are the repetition of sounds or syllables, prolongations ( the unnatural stretching out of sounds), and blocks, where the sound seems to get stuck and can't come out.
Stuttering is different from normal dysfluency in the type, frequency and duration of the dysfluencies. The frequency can be found by counting the amount of dysfluencies in, for example, a 100 words and determining the percentage. An average speaker will have up to 7% dysfluencies in his or her speech. These dysfluencies are most often rapid and don't slow down speech. Stuttering speech contains 10% dysfluencies or more, that can last for half a second to 30 seconds. What's even more important is that stuttering is accompanied by tension in the speaker.

Most research on stuttering has been done in western countries, but the main characteristics of stuttering occur all over the world, in every language.

The onset of stuttering usually occurs around the time that language skills are developing, and the onset is generally gradual in nature. Late-onset developmental stuttering is rare. Many kids experience a period (from age 2 to 5) of nonfluency, where they repeat whole words or phrases. The words are repeated once or twice, and they are repeated easily. The child does not seem to notice the dysfluencies and also experiences no tension as a result of them. The cause of these dysfluencies probably lies in the normal development of speech patterns and speech muscles. Most children outgrow these dysfluencies, some do not.

There have been many theories about the cause of stuttering. Currently it is believed that a number of factors play a role in the development and maintenance of stuttering, that can be constitutional, environmental and communication factors.
There is some evidence that stuttering is at least partly genetic, as it seems to run in certain families. There is also evidence that stuttering is caused by a disorder in the timing of the movements of the speech muscles, a defect in auditory feedback, and a lack of cerebral dominance for language functions. Researchers in San Diego reported results of a study using Positron Emission Tomography scanning (PET scan) that supports all three of the above causes. In normal and right-handed individuals, language functions are localized in the left side of the brain. PET scanning allows one to look at brain activation during different activities. Stutterers showed a shift in brain activation from the left to the right side of the brain, suggesting that they process language differently. This activation of the right side occurred when stutterers were stuttering and when they were speaking fluently.

This means that stuttering is not an emotional disorder. Psychological factors can influence the disorder, but the basic problem is a physical one.

The stutterer's brain doesn't have good, reliable control over the complex co-ordinated muscular movements that produce speech. When things are going comfortably, when they are at ease with their listener and saying something simple and straightforward, stutterers are much more likely to be fluent than if they are talking on a difficult topic to an unfamiliar audience. The anticipation of a difficult situation where stuttering might occur and be a problem is likely to cause nervousness that can in turn worsen the stuttering.

Some facts about stuttering:

  • Stuttering occurs more often in males than in females, with a ratio of about 3:1. This ratio is even larger for adults.
  • In childhood five people in a hundred stutter. In adulthood this amount decreases to about one in two hundred.
  • Stuttering is not a symptom of emotional or mental problems. Stuttering may cause stress and emotional difficulties, though.
  • Stutterers are not less intelligent than normal speakers; they are of normal intelligence.
  • Stuttering is not learned by imitating others who stutter.
There are many different types of stutter therapy available, for children as well as adults. While therapy works best in young children, because their nervous systems are still flexible, therapy can also be succesful for adults. The goal of stutter therapy in general is not to obtain perfect fluency, which is impossible, but rather to learn to stutterer to speak as fluent as possible and, much more important, to learn to cope with the stuttering and not be embarassed by their speech impediment.

What it's like to stutter

Breath passes through your throat as you talk. It happens every time we speak, and it is seldom actually thought about. Suddenly and inexplicably, perhaps on a word beginning with a "k" sound, this breath cannot move through your throat anymore due to a clenching in your voicebox. Since you can't seen to let that muscle relax without giving up on the sentence you are trying to speak, you repeat the last word you said over and over again, in essence attempting to make your voicebox stay open. If that doesn't work, you try to "shake it out", twisting and nodding your head, clenching your eyes, putting enormous exhale strain on your spasmatic throat. Finally the word you want to say is said in frantic desperation.

Then it happens all over again.

I've stuttered since I was approximately 5 years old. I've taken years of speech therapy and read several books on the subject. I have a very good understanding of most of the subjects in sloebertje's writeup. My only record of speaking like a normal person was a tape recording my parents made when I was three years old of me reading a short story about ducks in a pond. When I hear that tape, I think of the person I could have been, a charismatic young man with a big social life and lots of friends; teachers in school who wouldn't stop me mid-sentence when answering a question, not having to explain to people that I'm not brain damaged.

What happens when I stutter has transitioned over time. It seems that the popular belief that a mere repetition of the word is all that happens; that for some reason I say the word twice and it's beyond my control. This is not the case. What actually occurs is that when I attempt a sentence, sometimes I cannot say the next word, so I repeat the previous word until I am able to continue, or I pause, breathe, and allow my vocal chords to open up.

In the same way that words might be repeated, this "frustration" of not being able to say the next word also manifests itself in muscular spasms and contractions. My eyes invariably close and clench shut for an instant, my head bobs up and down, and a clicking, choking sound emanates from my throat. These occurrences are most embarrassing, since it makes me look like I have some sort of palsy or mental disorder. It was my biggest problem socially: I couldn't keep a flowing sentence.

It is *so maddening* wanting to get your point across and not being able to do so, or even worse having someone finish words and sentences for you from his own annoyance, or worse still: having the teacher shut you up and go on to the next student.

People are always talking about me behind my back. At my college, I once conversed with a group of professors who were friendly enough, smiling and giving me respect, but after I shut the thick door behind me, and I got a drink of water from the fountain next to the door, I could here them chatting. "Is he all-right-in-here?" I could picture the man speaking was pointing to his head. "I think he might have Tourettes or something," a different voice responded, "I don't know why he's here, maybe it's some sort of autism." "Kind of creepy, isn't it?" the voice replied.

At other times I've had other such encounters. Stuttering is one of those things that everybody interprets as a lie or dishonesty, or perhaps someone who is unsure of himself. I've had plenty of awkward looks and hidden grins at job interviews, and I've had to explain my speech disorder. Needless to say, I've never gotten placed in a job I've really enjoyed. I currently depend on contracting agencies to place me in positions since I loathe interviews.

If only people could hear what I was saying in my mind, they would realize that I'm a normal person just trying to have a conversation. I wish that I didn't have this malady. It's scarred me but at the same time I think it's made me stronger. Going to Redneck High School for four years of hell made me emotionally strong and resilient to the taunts of others. But I'm still sometimes unnaturally paranoid that people are talking ill of be behind my back. Nonetheless I haven't allowed my disorder to limit my social freedoms. Courage is experiencing fear but having the willpower to continue. I'm always afraid that the person I've just met will think I'm a freak if I speak to them, but I'll still greet them, say hello, shoot the breeze, and let them make their own decisions.

Stut"ter*ing, n.

The act of one who stutters; -- restricted by some physiologists to defective speech due to inability to form the proper sounds, the breathing being normal, as distinguished from stammering.


© Webster 1913.

Stut"ter*ing, a.

Apt to stutter; hesitating; stammering.

-- Stut"ter*ing*ly, adv.


© Webster 1913.

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