Stuttering, or Stammering, is a speech disorder which manifests itself as a difficulty in producing certain sounds, a hesitancy in initiating speech, and trouble in speaking in general. Many children pass through a stage of dysfluency as they grow up and learn to speak, but most of them grow out of it. For the ones who don't, their stutter can become a frustrating impediment to their ability to lead happy, productive lives and become proud members of society.
The original cause of stuttering is not yet known, but is a controversial area of scientific research. Some people suggest that it results from a flaw or dysfunction in the brain areas that process and output speech, and there is evidence to suggest that the disorder is genetic, as it seems to run in families. Research shows that roughly 4% of children stutter, and that 1% grow to be adults who stutter. Also, men are roughly five times more likely to stutter than women.
However, stuttering is not just about having difficulty speaking. If you put a man in a box for the duration of his lifetime, maybe it would be. But in the real world, which imposes tremendous pressure for one to speak and communicate effectively, stuttering is more of a learned behavior of emotional, psychological and physical responses to speaking situations. To begin with, the idea that stuttering is an emotional or psychological disorder is a fallacy that unfortunately likes to find its way into media portrayals of people who stutter in films like "Do The Right Thing", or "Primal Fear". People who stutter are just as intelligent, stable, and emotionally and psychologically capable as people who don't, and are abnormal in no other way than their speech. They don't stutter because of some traumatic experience that occurred to them at one stage of their lives or another.
Just try to imagine having trouble speaking and, over time and realization, developing the fear associated with that trouble, and you start to have a glimpse of the emotional and psychological burdens that people who stutter have to bear. It is the feelings and worries of stuttering that take over, and eventually become the dominating force of the disorder: the fear, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, anxiety, and anger.
I mean, picture this. As a child, you go to school during the day, and sit in class. The teacher asks you a question, to which you know the answer. You try to say it, but you can't, so you instead opt to act as if you don't know. You come home, and the telephone rings. Nobody is there to pick it up, so you start feeling nervous, for you know you have trouble saying the word "Hello". The phone keeps ringing. You approach it, beads of sweat starting to form on your forehead. You pick up the receiver, and feel the tension start to form in your throat. You block. "Hello? Hello?" you can hear the person at the other end say. "H-H---H," you manage to blurt out. Finally you give up on trying to say "Hello", and instead you ask, "Yeah?"
Later that day, you go to a restaurant. The waitress asks you what you want to eat. You feel like a chicken breast, but you know that the "ch" sound gives you trouble, so you decide not to risk it, and instead opt to order the steak, although it's not really what you want. I think you can more or less get the picture, but that's not where it stops. As a child in the playground, your classmates wonder why you talk differently. They think you have some exotic disease of the tongue. Some of them even tease you, and think you somehow are less intelligent than them. As an adult, you find yourself at a job interview, and from the start, you can't even say your name. Your dream job becomes harder to obtain. Not to mention that girl or boy you've been dying to meet, that oral presentation due at the end of the week, your relatives coming over for dinner. The list goes on and on.
It's a vicious cycle that is very hard to break. When a stutterer sees a speaking situation arise, he starts to get nervous. He's scared. Butterflies build up in his stomach, and his entire throat becomes tense. "I'm gonna stutter. I'm gonna stutter!" he tells himself. And when the situation arises, he's so worked up he can't say anything. He utters, "Um! Ah!" and other word starters to free up his clenched vocal cords. He substitutes some words he can't say for others he can, changes the course of the conversation, and decides to fight through the situation: stuttering, hesitating, opening his mouth for the words that don't want to come out. The observable struggles - the clenched breath, flared nostrils, jerking motions, prolongations and repetitions of sounds - are an effort to get past the speech block. They are the result of the block, not its cause. Some people who stutter mentally scan forward and foresee troublesome words or situations that may arise, and then react by substituting or avoiding them, a condition known as "closet stuttering" because nobody knows they do it but themselves. In any case, the experience just serves to add to all the others that one has compiled over one's life, to reinforce the fear and insecurity that crop up the next time one tries to speak.
As of today, there is no cure to stuttering. However, modern speech therapy can be tremendously helpful to people who stutter, in demonstrating and practicing fluency techniques, and tackling the fears and negative emotions associated with the disorder. Many people have successfully tackled their stutter and managed to abate it to the point that it almost disappears. Stuttering, although incurable, can be controlled through effort, persistence, determination, and patience. And from May 12th to May 18th, you can do your part to help people who stutter by reading a book, searching the net, gaining knowledge about their disorder, and giving them a bit of patience. You can play your part in helping them achieve their dreams of fluent speech, a gift most others take for granted.