Travelling between stuttering, foreign language learning and bilingualism

I was asked to write a few words about my journey through stammering and foreign language learning to bilingualism for the Bilingualism London Clinical Excellence Network.

The majority of the world’s population is bilingual, moving fluidly between different languages when required and demonstrating the beauty of interlingual and intercultural communication. Action and language are inextricably linked, and our lives are defined by how we intertwine language with our experiences, hopes, problems, and needs. The ability to live through different languages is a uniquely enriching experience that should be treasured by all who are able to do so. My personal experiences as a young, monolingual person who stutters led me to believe that I would be forever on the outside looking in at this linguistic utopia. Thankfully, I have been able to find a little corner within this world from which I can observe and participate in a bilingual experience. I owe my progress to excellent professional guidance from speech and language therapists, the galvanising presence of other people who stutter, a little bit of luck and some bloody-minded determination.

I am now effectively bilingual after 10 years living in Spain; English and Spanish sit next to one another in my brain, sometimes getting in each other’s way, but generally existing in harmonious convivence. People now ask me if I am “fluent” in Spanish. I know what they mean, and the answer to their question is yes, but I generally pause before responding because being “fluent” is not quite that straightforward and in my case, not completely accurate.

Reaching this point has not been easy, language learning is difficult and the fact that I stutter has been both a gift and a curse in this respect. I often think that my fascination with language has been stimulated in part by the fact that the fluent spoken word has, at times, been inaccessible to me. Stuttering means that producing language is often accompanied by a number of physical sensations. In this sense, you can literally feel language within you, flowing and grating and grinding and then sometimes flowing again. This creates a rather strange relationship. You come to learn which phonemes you can rely on and which are a little more unpredictable. Your favourite words can become enemies and go unsaid for long periods and the names of your most loved can provoke an unjust struggle. Language becomes more than language, it becomes a constant back and forth, played out within your brain, lungs, throat, tongue, and lips.

For me, learning another language has been an interesting experience. At times the game becomes more intense, but at other moments it seems to subside. The lows can be overwhelming, but the highs equally so. After experiencing language through the prism of stuttering, finding your place in a multilingual world is a fascinating experience and one that I feel has been hugely beneficial to me personally and my feeling is that it could also be for others.

I have found that learning another language has allowed me to view communication differently. I now feel as if some of the intimidating facade of language has been dismantled, my newfound ability to correctly construct questions, affirmations and observations in Spanish has offset some of the frustration my stutter can occasionally generate. Equally, I think my 15-year-old self would react positively to how I am able to express myself in another language, when for a long time it seemed that such a dream would never come to fruition.

Despite such reasons for positive reflection, I sometimes feel like my learning has been convoluted by my speech: in addition to learning how to speak in Spanish, I have had to learn how to stutter in Spanish. By this I do not mean studying to avoid problematic words (although at times I have), it has been more a case of understanding how my disfluency can temporarily take away my ability to use my hard-fought linguistic knowledge and place me back in the shoes of the boy that failed his G.C.S.E oral exam. Knowing how to deal with these moments (which can occur on a daily basis) has been fundamental in separating my relatively minor stumbles from genuine progress. I feel strongly that positive experiences with speech and language therapists have helped me in this regard, as I have learnt not to dwell on the times I have found communication difficult and instead drawn strength from my positive experiences using a new language.

I continue learning; I now teach English as a foreign language and I am a PhD student. My research interests are within applied linguistics, foreign language teaching and learning, and inclusive education. My own experiences have driven these interests and it is clear that learning a foreign language is an incredibly useful life skill, which can have a significant impact upon an individual’s personal and professional development in myriad ways. Furthermore, research suggests that language learning is a cognitively beneficial exercise, promoting the growth of white matter and helping to keep the brain “in shape”. However, foreign language learning can be intimidating. A focus upon spoken interaction, assessment of oral performance, and an unfamiliar phonetic system can make it all the more challenging for students who stutter. In many ways, the foreign language class encompasses many of the more daunting aspects of verbal communication and can become a kind of wicked distillation of all that we fear.

Anxiety in this context has been identified as an important factor as it can impede learning, reduce motivation, and hinder performance in students. While studies with people who stutter have identified higher rates of anxiety than in the general population, suggesting that the relationship between anxiety and stuttering may have implications for the progress of learners who stutter. Despite this, there appears to be very little research into the anxiety of these students in foreign language learning. In a modest attempt to address this scarcity of research, I have carried out a study in Spain with English foreign language learners. I am interested in the relationships between anxiety, stuttering, language learning, and self-related beliefs held by students who stutter and I believe that by engaging with them we may be able to better understand how foreign language classes could be improved for all learners, but particularly those who stutter.

My research utilises a mixed-methods approach; on one hand, I have carried out and analysed 18 semi-structured interviews with students who stutter, while on the other, these same students and a comparison group of students with neurotypical speech completed two questionnaires that are designed to assess levels of anxiety in the foreign language classroom. Interviews provided participants with an opportunity to relate their experiences of English foreign language in their own words. This allowed for a more complete insight into how anxiety arises in the foreign language classroom and how it may differ in learners who stutter compared to those who do not. Conducting this research has been an immensely enriching experience for me personally and I am indebted to the openness of the participants for sharing their experiences with me. The study is still ongoing, but a number of preliminary results can be discussed.

In general, students who stutter reported experiencing more anxiety than their non-stuttering peers. This appeared to be the result of foreign language anxiety augmenting existing anxiety regarding communication and negative social evaluation. While levels of anxiety regarding speaking tasks were higher in students who stutter than in their non-stuttering peers, this was not the case for tasks across the other language skill domains of reading, writing, and listening.

When interpreting these findings, it is important to consider how living with a stutter can influence communicative behaviours. The nature of stuttering and societal reactions to disfluent speech mean that some individuals who stutter use certain strategies to manage their speech fluency during spoken interaction. These include speech behaviours which are rightfully discouraged by speech and language therapists, such as using synonyms or rephrasing sentences to avoid troublesome words.

Nevertheless, it remains a fact that for many individuals who stutter such habits are difficult to break, and many fall back on them as a sort of safety net in challenging communicative situations. Participants stated that a lack of linguistic resources in the foreign language often meant they could not engage in these kinds of compensatory behaviours. Understandably, this caused a certain degree of apprehension. For example, one participant proudly stated that she and others who stutter are “experts in synonyms”, but that this linguistic ability deserted her when in English classes. Consequently, participation in oral tasks such as reading in class or presenting became much more difficult, than in her native language. However, it also gives an indication of a strong underlying confidence in her linguistic knowledge.

Avoidance behaviours do more harm than good, but it is worth recognizing the linguistic dexterity involved in pirouetting away from “problem” words whilst also formulating sentences and maintaining communication. It is possible that if skills such as these are channelled positively they may be of benefit in the foreign language classroom. Moreover, when provided with correct support, one may consider the benefits of such habits becoming inaccessible; individuals may realise the empowering nature of saying the words they want to say and in turn learn to reduce avoidance behaviours. Equally, some individuals who stutter consider that they have developed certain characteristics that can be beneficial when learning a foreign language. For example, a certain affinity for listening was expressed by some participants who considered that their proficiency in active listening had developed in a response to stuttering.

However, testimony from the majority of participants suggests that anxiety disrupts their learning experiences and can result in the development of negative self-related beliefs, which include low self-esteem, negative self-concept beliefs, weak self-efficacy, and negative learner identity positions. Therefore, it appears that anxiety experienced in this context can set in motion a number of subsequent emotional and behavioural responses that may be detrimental to progress both inside and outside the language classroom.

To remedy this, participants suggested that awareness, understanding, and collaboration from teachers and peers were key to reducing anxiety and improving the learning experience. Participants felt particularly strongly that teachers should take the initiative by showing patience and acceptance in the classroom, and a willingness to engage with learners who stutter in private. The benefits of one-to-one conversations with teachers were highlighted as an important stepping stone to enjoyable classroom participation. Ultimately, participants expressed an overwhelming desire to take an active part in classroom activities but found classroom dynamics sometimes hindered this. Students who stutter who had been able to reduce or mitigate anxiety and experience support have found that the foreign language classroom can be a context in which they can challenge certain fears regarding spoken language and develop positive self-related beliefs. Encouragingly, positive change of this kind also appears to improve broader attitudes toward communication, including contexts in which an individual’s native language is spoken.

By deepening our understanding of how this group of students are affected by anxiety, we may be able to provide better teaching so that language learners are able to reach their potential and experience the joy that can be found in communication. I hope that this study will add to the literature regarding the experiences of individuals who stutter and stimulate discussion within the field of foreign language teaching and learning. Additionally, I would love to encourage speech and language therapists who work with language learners who stutter to aid their progress through this challenging but tremendously rewarding process. I believe they can play a crucial role in providing the support and encouragement which can sometimes be lacking in the language classroom.