A question of speech

A beautiful piece in today’s IHT.

Published: March 4, 2011
Can most people really say whatever they want, whenever they want, without even thinking about it?

Opinion | I.H.T. Op-Ed Contributor

I know it’s coming. The people ahead of me are going one by one. Terror rises in my throat. I try to think of a plausible excuse to leave. I look around for the nearest exit. My turn is drawing nearer and nearer. What is it? Getting vaccinated? Bungee jumping? Death?

No, much worse: introductions. If you stutter, one of the most difficult situations is saying your name when you’re put on the spot.

Stuttering is an odd affliction. Unlike someone who is crippled and can never walk, I can talk fluently when I’m all by myself. I can even sing my name over and over again, loudly and with ease. And since there’s no external sign, strangers are not prepared for my handicap.

Once at a dinner party, when I was introducing myself, I hit a major block. One woman laughed gaily, and asked very wittily if I had forgotten my own name.

Fortunately for me, I have a wonderful family. My parents never treated me any differently and made me believe I could do anything. My younger sister grew up with my stutter and so always waited patiently for me to get my words out, never even turning her eyes away.

In my youth, the problem was milder and so I thought I could hide it by cleverly substituting easy words for difficult ones.

But after much deliberation and in the interest of starting my marriage with a clean slate, I told my fiancé of my speech problem. “Egad,” he said, “I thought you were going to tell me you’re an axe murderer.’‘ “But you d-d-don’t understand,” I persisted, “sometimes I just b-b-block on a word and no sound comes out.’‘ He smiled, “Good; more air time for me.”

When my daughter was 2 years old and sitting on her potty, she pulled her sippy cup out of her mouth and asked me, “Amma, why do you talk like that?” “Like what?” I asked, starting to feel a shade uncomfortable. She thought, and then said, “Starting and stopping.” I took a deep breath, “I have a speech problem.” She looked at me, said “Oh,” and put her sippy cup back in her mouth. She’s never commented on it again.

I watch with awe those who speak well, lightly, effortlessly. I listen to the words tripping fluently off their tongue. Can most people really say whatever they want, whenever they want, without worrying or even thinking about it? They don’t need to point to things on the menu. They don’t need to always drink apple juice on airplanes, because they can’t say tomato juice. They can easily share a good joke that seems just right at a particular time in the gathering, without thinking it through and deciding it’s too risky given all the likely places for blocks.

Stuttering has been brought to the spotlight this week with the Academy Award for best picture going to the movie “The King’s Speech.” It’s the first time stuttering has been the theme of a major feature film and the condition has been exhibited by the main actor.

Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the sessions at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was on stuttering. Luc De Nil of the University of Toronto explained how the speech centers in the brains of stutterers were found to be more densely packed and more active — proving my long-standing hypothesis that stutterers are highly intelligent, even if we can’t say so ourselves.

I knew I never should have come to this meeting. I can feel my heart pounding and my hands shaking. And now it’s nearly my turn. Maybe I could yell “Fire!” and run out of the room. Maybe I could call myself by some other name, something easier to say, like Colin Firth…. But several people in the room know me and this would really throw them off. Or maybe I could take a deep breath and try to say my own name. Hoping for the best, I smile and open my mouth.

Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and academic/business editor based in India.

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Author: Mark