Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I dunno..... (really?)

I became familiar with Robert Quesal, Ph.D. through the podcasts. A quick search found his own web site, which linked me to the following article:

The Role of the Stutterer in Therapy

An examination of that article would extend far beyond a single blog post, so I'll start with one sentence.

"When we observe people who stutter, we have no way of knowing, for sure, which disfluencies that we are seeing are "stuttering," and which are the same types of disfluencies that anyone would exhibit."

First, let me point out that Dr Quesal sees the need to put the word stuttering in quotation marks, as if he were adding a parenthetical "so-called". Second, and rather more important, Dr Quesal tells us that as a Ph.D. in speech pathology, and over 25 years experience, he is incapable of recognizing stuttering when he sees and hears it.

Stop and think about that.

Now let's put on our common sense hats. I think it's fair to say that Dr. Quesal knows stuttering when he sees and hears it perfectly well. In fact, I think it's fair to say that you don't need a Ph.D. to recognize stuttering - any person taken off the street could do nearly as well as Dr. Quesal. People either stutter, or they don't. There was no qualification in the quote above for very mild stuttering, or for stuttering we get away with occasionally. The quote begins "When we observe people who stutter..." No qualifier here - this is meant as a statement of general principle.

So why would an "expert" in stuttering say that he can't recognize the fundamental fact of his field when we believe that that statement can't possibly be accurate? An answer, ironically (or not) comes from the late Marcel Wingate, who was paraphrased disapprovingly in the article cited above. Wingate railed against the tendency to obscure the nature of stuttering by some researchers, particularly Wendell Johnson of the University of Iowa.

This obscuring comes about through the introduction of the idea that stuttering is just another form of "disfluency." These days, it's hard to read a paragraph on stuttering without finding the words fluency or disfluency at least once. This focus - or misdirection - on disfluency just serves to take the spotlight off the matter at hand: stuttering.

This confounding of stuttering - a very special speech disruption - with what is called "normal disfluency" is at the heart of the problem. When stuttering becomes not just "stuttering," as it is understood by most people on the planet, but every hesitation, repeated word and slip of the tongue, then the quote above can be twisted into making sense. Yes, people who stutter do hesitate like normal speakers, and that hesitation cannot be separated out from the hesitation of a non-stutterer. So in that sense, the quote follows its own logic.

The problem with the quote above - the reason it fails so dramatically in a common-sense way - is that when Quesal uses the word stuttering, he doesn't mean stuttering. He means stuttering and all that other stuff that is not stuttering, but I'm putting it in the same bag with stuttering.

Wouldn't it make more sense to restrict the word stuttering for when people actually, you know, stutter? Have you ever listened to a person who didn't stutter speak and think to yourself "I wonder if those are stutters, or just stutter-like normal disfluencies?" I haven't. When someone stutters, I know it. When someone doesn't stutter, I know it. I claim no special knowledge, and I certainly don't have a Ph.D. in speech pathology. No one almost-stutters. A stutter is a unique product of speech pathology. It would be nice if experts in the field kept the definition of the essence of the condition to the actual thing itself, and not obscure it by adding a grab-bag of non-essential phenomena.


  1. Keep up the great work! I will never understand how something so simple and logical can become so illogical and confusing. Just keep it simple, keep it is what it is!

  2. It's amazing to me how much of stutterland falls prey to this kind of fuzzy-headed thinking. Wingate points out that even those like Wendell Johnson who set out to show that stuttering was merely another form of "disfluency" went about their studies by selecting stutterers and non-stutterers, and characterized "disfluency" by stuttering disfluency and non-stuttering disfluency. In other words, they knew the difference perfectly well yet went ahead attempting to disprove what they already knew. Good God.

  3. Sorry you so seriously misunderstood what I wrote.