Those who don’t speak another language assume that those of us who do have some type of exclusive language “gene”. This is perhaps the biggest cop-out of all the language learning myths. It’s easy to brush off our own shortcomings by accepting that we simply don’t have the gift, that elusive language gene. Hey, it’s not my fault I can’t speak another language! I don’t have the gene!
However, it’s quite hard for people to justify their assertions that I must have “the natural, God-given language gene” when I tell them that I’m actually a stutterer. Most people don’t believe me at first because I’ve learnt to control it. Nevertheless, when I’m angry or tired (or just really need a pizza…) it can come back, but it rears its ugly head the most when I speak a foreign language.
This All Looks a Bit Familiar…
Having a stutter mirrors the language learning struggle in many ways. Firstly, it made me incredibly self-conscious and I developed a phobia of speaking. I’d avoid verbal communication as much as possible and try and get other people to speak on my behalf. I was most afraid of looking like an idiot, wrongly equating what I was able to verbalize with my own level of intelligence.
Sound familiar? If you’ve ever tried to speak in a foreign language you’ve probably experienced this frustration (if you haven’t, kudos!).
Secondly, this fear of speaking led me to wrongly believe that I was “shy” which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’m an incredibly sociable and outgoing person but my fear of speaking had warped my own perception of myself. It’s the same with many language learners who dupe themselves into believing that they’re just “shy” and that’s why they have trouble speaking.
Here’s a newsflash: just because you feel uncomfortable in certain situations doesn’t mean you are shy. I flag this because this false belief is such a limiting thought and holds you back indefinitely. If you keep telling yourself that you’re shy when you’re actually not, eventually you start believing it and you’ll cling on to that belief as a means of justifying your lack of effort to speak a new language. Combine this false belief with the “I just don’t have the language gene” excuse and you’re doomed.
Books Won’t Help
I retreated into the written word to compensate for my lack of spoken eloquence. Apart from just finding comfort in those words, I thought that if somehow I knew more words, if I spent more time reading and writing it would somehow improve my ability to speak. Most language learners do the same. They think; if only I knew the grammar inside out I’d be able to speak better! If only I knew more words I’d be more fluent!
So they go to their rooms, alone, and sit down with their books endlessly memorizing verb tables and doing their fill-in-the-blanks exercises in the hope that someday that’ll pay off and help them speak. This is the equivalent of trying to run a marathon by reading books about the mechanics of running instead of actually…running. I’m not saying books and study don’t have their place in language learning, but the main thing that’ll help you speak is, well, speaking.
Reading may have given me endless joy and a pretty good vocabulary, but I still had a stutter and it got worse the less I spoke. The tongue and mouth are like any other muscle, if they don’t practice the sounds and words of a new language regularly they get rusty.
Time for a Change
After one afternoon at the hairdresser’s when I couldn’t even tell the receptionist my own name because I was stuttering so much I decided to go to speech therapy. I finally realized that I couldn’t get over this stutter on my own, books weren’t going to help and I was fed up with living my life in fear of opening my mouth.
I was so nerve-wracked before the first session that I barely slept the day before. Looking back I can see how misplaced my anxiety was: this person was a trained professional whose job it was to help people overcome speech disorders. What was I expecting? For her to laugh at me? For her to secretly record the session and show it to all her friends? I couldn’t have been in safer hands
This is one of the reasons I also prefer using teachers over language partners when I’m not yet at a conversational level in a language. It helps ease a lot of the anxiety knowing that the person you’re going to speak to is a professional. They know how best to structure lessons to help you speak and express yourself without becoming frustrated or overwhelmed. So, with my needless anxiety still wreaking havoc on my nervous system, I started my journey into speech therapy. This would not only serve to help obliterate my stutter, but also stand by me in my language learning later in life.
The thing I remember most clearly about our sessions was a tiny little clicker that my speech therapist held in her hand. She explained that everytime I stuttered she would click and at the end we’d count up how many clicks I had.
That clicker terrified me.
It was the quantifiable sum of all my speech-related errors. Every time I’d stutter and hear that metallic click! I’d get more nervous, stutter again, click! Start over, stutter again click! Until I wanted to cry.
Click! Click! Click!
It’s a miracle that I went back for the next session. I was hearing that clicker all the way there. Once we had done some breathing exercises and settled in a bit she said she wanted me to try stuttering on purpose.
The Epiphany — Making Mistakes on Purpose
Being the polite fourteen-year-old that I was I decided to indulge this crazy speech therapy lady in her mad schemes. During our conversation I stuttered on purpose two or three times and something simple, but amazing happened. Making mistakes on purpose gave me a sense of control that I’d totally lost in my speech. My speech was always something I had to fight with, something that plagued my daily life and something as simple as stuttering on purpose made me realize that this little blip in my speaking wasn’t actually that big of a deal.
So, to those who are reading this I urge you to do the same: next time you’re speaking with someone in your target language make a mistake on purpose. Say something wrong, then simply laugh and correct yourself.
You’ll see how the sky doesn’t cave in, the natives don’t burst out laughing and start making fun of you and you’ll also see what little impact making the mistake has on the fluidity of your conversation. And when you make the mistake try laughing at yourself. That was another of the techniques I learnt at speech therapy (I wonder if my therapist was a bit of a maverick…)
Don’t fall into profusely apologizing and overreacting to your mistake because you will make the other person feel uncomfortable and you will end up making it worse for yourself. Addressing the elephant in the room is a fantastic way to relieve tension when you’re speaking with a native. I used to try and fight my way through my stutter and I’d watch as the other person would be painfully unsure of how to help me.
Do you know what I do now when I stutter? I simply make a noise that can only be transcribed as; “blueeeeggh” I laugh, I say “Sorry, let me try that again” and I start over. I do the same when I get tongue-tied in another language and it instantly makes me feel less nervous (and puts the other person at ease too because they aren’t thinking “oh, poor thing!”) And if I’m less nervous and they are more at ease we end up having a much more fluid conversation.
Stutter? What Stutter?
As time went on I learned how to ignore those little clicks! One day at the end of a session I said,
“I’m really tuning out those clicks now, I didn’t notice any today,” and my therapist said,
“That’s because you haven’t stuttered once.”
I almost fell off my chair. By embracing my mistakes and accepting that they were just part and parcel of my daily life I ended up reducing my stutter dramatically. With time I went back to being the outgoing, confident chatterbox that I used to be and I went on to learn two more languages.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t always easy. My stutter comes out more with foreign languages and I sometimes feel the same way as I did when I was a nervous, stuttering teenager. So, why do I do it? Am I some type of masochist who enjoys reliving past traumas?
I do it because communication is a gift, not a curse. My interest for languages coincided with the taming of my stammer because I realized what a just how precious language really is. Many won’t appreciate it until it’s been taken away from them or hindered in some way. Think of those people with severe speech impediments, think of those who suffer strokes. Speech is the thing that makes us human, it has enabled us to survive to become what we are today. Learning new languages gives us even more opportunities to connect with people. No other animal has this but us. Don’t waste it, embrace it.