Stuttering: Why Do People Do It?

Welcome back to another Amaze-ing Words Wednesday! With all of my fascination about words and language, I find it curious that some people who know their native language quite well just can’t seem to get the words out sometimes.

Why do some people stutter?

As it turns out, many young children stutter. It is common for children when learning language to stumble over words or the beginnings of words as they form thoughts and move them into speech. However, for most kids, stuttering goes away around elementary age. A few continue to stutter into adulthood, ranging from mild tripping of the speech to genuine difficulty in communicating with others.

Some interesting information about stuttering:

  • About 10% of people stutter at some time in their life, but the overall incidence of stutterers at any given time is 1/2 to 1% of the population.
  • Stuttering is more common among boys than girls, by about 4 to 1.
  • About 60% of those who stutter have a close family member who stutters.
  • Brain studies suggest that stutterers have atypical asymmetry in those specific regions that mediate speech, language and motor functions.
  • Stutterers typically don’t have difficulties with the flow of words when they sing.

Challenges with stuttering haven’t prevented plenty of people from finding success in occupations that relate to language. For example, the following celebrities have been identified as stutterers at one time or another:

Nicholas Brendon (actor)
Lewis Caroll (author)
Winston Churchill (prime minister)
Hugh Grant (actor)
Samuel L. Jackson (actor)
Henry James (author)
James Earl Jones (actor)
Harvey Keitel (actor)
William Somerset Maugham (author)
Kiley Minogue (singer)
Marilyn Monroe (actress)
Elvis Presley (singer)
Carly Simon (singer)
Jimmy Stewart (actor)
John Stossel (journalist)
Mel Tillis (singer)
John Updike (author)
Bruce Willis (actor)

The case of stuttering was particularly brought to light with the movie The King’s Speech, chronicling the speech therapy King George VI underwent to prepare for a radio address to the country. His problem was severe, but he was given the task by birth of communicating to the British people at a crucial moment in the nation’s history.

Thankfully, most of us won’t be required to deliver a speech to a whole nation. However, it can still be challenging for stutterers to communicate in social settings. I found a few tips for those who come across people who stutter in conversation:

  • Be patient. The stutterer may take more time, but just like everyone else, they know what they want to say.
  • Don’t tell the stutterer to slow down or take a breath. The problem is not speed of speech, and it can be off-putting to draw attention to the stuttering.
  • Fight the temptation to complete the sentence for the stutterer. Give them the same courtesy you would give others, and let them finish.
  • Note that stuttering often increases when communication occurs by phone. Allow more time in that situation.
  • Speak clearly at a natural but unhurried pace.

And for those who do stutter, studies show that stutterers tend to desire an improvement in their fluency over being left alone about it. If that is true of you, speech therapy can be helpful in addressing this language anomaly.

Have you ever experienced difficulty with stuttering? Do you have a family member or friend who stutters? How do handle stuttering?

Sources: Children’s Hospital Colorado; University of Iowa; Listverse; The Stuttering Foundation; National Stuttering Foundation

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15 thoughts on “Stuttering: Why Do People Do It?

  1. I know a man who stutters when he talks, but when he sings, he can do it absolutely perfectly. It’s really amazing.
    Thanks for the info Julie!

  2. I remember Mel Tellis in the Whataburger commercials when I was a kid. We loved him at our house. I think his stuttering was the first time I understood much about it. As an adult, one of my coworkers had a stutter. It was a matter of being patient so she could get the words out–she was brilliant, so it was worth the wait.

  3. Bob Newhart once said that his stutter paid for his house in Malibu.

    One of my oldest friends (not quite in the cradle, but shortly thereafter) had a terrible stutter, and he was in college before he lost most of it. Everyone was fine with it, except my mother, who thought his mother made him a nervous wreck by telling him not to touch things he shouldn’t when he was a baby. I noticed that a lot of it went away when he started playing guitar, although that could have just been him getting older. Interesting thought, though; maybe music has a positive effect on the parts of the brain that control speech.

  4. My husband stuttered when he was a kid. I don’t know if it’s related, but he also has dyslexia. Speech therapy helped him a lot, but he still stutters sometimes. As you noted, you just have to wait it out – and it’s worth it, because he’s a funny guy!

  5. One of my favorite singers on American Idol last year had a facial tic that did not manifest itself when he sang. That’s how you describe some of those individuals who stutter. I find this intriguing. Why is it that they wouldn’t stutter when singing? Fascinating.

  6. When I have a migraine coming on, one of the tell-tale signs is a loss of words — not exactly stuttering, but I often do stammer because I can’t find the proper word in my head. “Please bring me the… the… the…” (and I can’t name the thing, even though I’m looking right at it.) It’s frustrating and more than a little scary. It truly has nothing to do with intellect but is a neurological problem. Freaky.

  7. I was often at a loss for words as a child, I remember too many words floating in my head and finding it hard to pick exactly how to say something. My mom would usually talk for me in these instances 😦 I see my son struggling with a similar thing and your advice is spot on. He looks at me in a panic and I just wait with a smile and then pop, it all comes out. So very interesting, thanks, Julie.

  8. My older daughter developed a stuttering problem when she was 3. At first we thought it wasn’t that bad, but it got to the point that she started making the faces that showed she understood the problem, and once, after trying for about 15 seconds to get a word out, stopped and simply said, “I can’t talk, Mommy.” As a dad watching, it broke my heart.

    We got her involved with school speech therapists during her preschool years, and she eventually worked beyond the problem, as most stutterers do. However, one thing that differed from your information above was that we were told to point out when she was having a problem, directing her to slow down and think clearly about what she was going to say before she said it. I guess that it’s okay to do this at this age. The belief is that the mind is trying to make the mouth go faster than it can, causing the mouth to trip up to slow itself down. I don’t know the truth of this, but she did work through the issue, with or without the help of her speech therapist.

    Thanks for the informative post.

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