People with disfluency often deal with embarrassment, frustration and avoidance of certain situations:
"I was afraid of talking on the phone and ordering at restaurants and drive-through windows. I pretended I was busy so someone else would have to answer the phone or order for me whenever possible. I would just find all sorts of excuses to avoid communicating with others. I often feared that people would not understand me or would laugh at me when I spoke."
This statement, however, is not from a person who stutters. It was written by Vicki Lin, a student in my undergraduate stuttering class who arrived in the United States at age 18. She discovered many parallels between stuttering and her experience learning a new language:
"I would avoid introducing myself or meeting people in unfamiliar situations. I had a tendency to avoid parties and gatherings, and I usually let others approach me first in those circumstances. I felt frustrated and uncomfortable when I was asked to repeat what I intended to say and when I talked to people who were in authority or with whom I was unfamiliar."
These parallels between people who stutter and people learning a new language can help speech-language pathology students understand their future clients, even more so than the typical stuttering class assignment: Go out on campus and strike up conversations, while fake stuttering, with strangers. In this exercise, the students experience what a listener may nonverbally or verbally convey to a person who stutters. Once they experience some of the rejection familiar to a person who stutters, they begin to understand the dynamics of why people who stutter avoid certain words, sounds, people and places.
The fake-stuttering assignment is especially eye-opening for students who are English-language learners, as one student wrote:
"I was 16 years old when I came to the USA. When I was learning English in high school I was picked on and teased by other kids because I could not understand half of the things they were telling me. I would not speak until I was sure that the structure of the sentences I was making was correct or my pronunciation was correct. I used to be stared at or corrected by people—they finished my sentences or corrected my pronunciations. When I thought about having to go out and stutter in public, all these feelings of embarrassment, fear, frustration and shame that I had experienced learning a new language came back to me."
Student Karine Abahamyan also found a fine line between people who stutter and who are learning a new language. Abahamyan said that even with a good vocabulary in English, she experienced many of the negative emotions and word-producing challenges associated with people who stutter. She experienced muscle tension and some secondary behaviors, such as hand movements and repetitions, as she tried to speak English:
"Before a meeting or job interview I always practiced the whole project or speech by myself in front of a mirror and my speech was very smooth, but in front of others I experienced laryngeal muscle tension, which affected my articulation. I found myself acquiring some secondary behaviors and forgot most of the words I was going to say. I experienced frustration as many people who stutter experience."
When Vicki Lin came to the United States at 18 years old, learning to communicate in English became her goal for the next two years. She graduated from UCLA and became proficient enough to teach ESL in the UCLA extension program. After more than 10 years, she still experiences word-finding issues and still fears that she does not always speak correctly and fluently:
"From the frustration I felt speaking English as a non-native English speaker, I can empathize with individuals who stutter. Acknowledging the feelings of people who stutter and sharing my own experiences and frustrations can assist people who are disfluent cope with the obstacles they face."
In addition, people who are learning a language and people who stutter must divide their concentration. A language-learner must think so hard about how to say something correctly, causing stress that may surface as pauses and/or repetitions of sounds, words or phrases. Similarly, people who are focusing on fluency techniques—such as prolongations, pullouts and easy onsets—and how to use those techniques may have trouble formulating thoughts or staying on track with the conversation. Adults who stutter have told me that it was too difficult for them to maintain the techniques, so they abandoned them.
To relate more effectively to clients who stutter, it can be helpful for students to share personal experiences—such as the challengesof learning a new language—and how they can be similar, so that these future clinicians can understand their clients' avoidances and fears. Sharing these insights with their future clients who stutter can help those clients realize that others also experience rejection, frustration and embarrassment when they try to communicate.