Tuesday, November 22, 2011

You are fluent (really!)

Is English your native language? If so, then no doubt you are fluent - in English. Wasn't that easy? If you doubt that you are fluent, ask a friend - or a stranger - to use the word 'fluent' in a sentence. The result will be something like "He is fluent in English," or "She is fluent in French." Then ask that person what the word fluent means. The answer is guaranteed to be something along the lines of "has mastery of the language" or "speaks and understands the language."

Given that this word has a perfectly clear meaning to all English speakers, how did it get a different meaning in the world of stuttering? Marcel Wingate notes in one of his books on stuttering that when he looked up the related word 'disfluency' in dictionaries, it wasn't there. The only dictionary he could find 'disfluency' in was a medical dictionary, and that book took the meaning from the stuttering literature, not from general usage.

In this matter, there is, as they say, more than meets the eye. The word fluency became synonymous with 'normal speech' in order to get the previously non-word 'disfluency' into the language of speech pathology. Here, we need to know some history of the field of speech pathology, and stuttering research in particular.

In the early part of the 20th Century, there were different theories on the cause and nature of stuttering. Starting in the 1930s, when the field started becoming professionalized, and students began receiving Ph.Ds in the field, the most important and influential theory was probably that of Wendell Johnson, who asserted that stuttering was a learned behavior. Johnson believed that stuttering grew out of the normal errors of children's speech. It was the parents and teachers mistaken idea that the child actually had something wrong with his or her speech that caused the child to internalize the belief. This lead the child into maladaptive speech behaviors, which then became ingrained over time.

This caused Johnson to see stuttering as just one end of the speech error continuum. On one end was the blocks and prolongations of stuttering. On the other was the set of hesitations, repeats, in interjections of everyday normal speech. All of these errors of speech, stuttered and non-stuttered, belonged in a single category. And that category was 'disfluency.'

As a result, volumes of speech and language journals have been filled with studies by academics, counting and categorizing 'stuttering disfluencies' and 'normal disfluencies.' A regular claim of experts is that one cannot separate stuttering from non-stuttering because each single 'disfluency' cannot be confidently ascribed to either 'stuttering disfluency' or 'normal disfluency.'

This is what is called 'paralysis by analysis,' in which experts paint themselves into a corner and then define the floor as unpaintable. Of course, the truth is that you can take any ten people off the street, and they will tell you whether an individual is stuttering or not with great reliability. The wisdom of the common man - and the folly of the experts - is that the common man doesn't concern himself with the categorization of each and every imperfection of speech. One could say that they don't know that meaning of 'disfluency,' and that's a good thing.

The truth is that the words fluent and disfluent do not elucidate the condition of stuttering - they obscure it. A perfectly good word (fluent) has been hijacked to serve an idea that has been shown to be incorrect year ago. In spite of that fact, the twin terms (fluency/disfluency) remain, and continue to shape though on the subject.

Those who stutter do not need to become fluent. Statterers are fluent - in their native language. So if stuttering isn't disfluency, what is it? Answer: stuttering is a pathological condition that results in abnormal speech production. Speech produced by people who do not stutter is normal speech, with all its momentary errors and flaws. Think about this: how can a fluent speaker produce so-called 'normal disfluencies?' If your speech is fluent, how can it be disfluent at the same time?

As far as stuttering is concerned, there are two kinds of speech: the flaws produced during a stuttering event, and everything else. Stuttering and non-stuttering, not disfluent and fluent. Every person who stutters produces mostly normal speech. The abnormal speech - the repeats, the prolongations, and the inability to begin speech at all - these are the symptoms of the condition.

Why does this matter? It matters because the focus is removed from every little error and imperfection of speech, and applied directly to the real problem. There are classes for public speaking, where people seek to break bad habits like interjection 'ah,' 'umm' and 'like' into their speech. Those people do not go to a speech pathologist. These speech behaviors actually are learned behaviors (unlike stuttering), and it is trivial to correct them. All it requires is attention and practice. And once removed, they stay removed.

When we stop thinking in terms of disfluency and fluency, we are left with what separates us from non-stutterers. We have a condition that somehow interferes with the normal speech production process. Unlike the normal speaker in a public speaking class, our flaws are not simply learned behaviors, and preventing or changing them is not a trivial matter. When we shift from thinking in terms of fluency to normalcy (with it's regular and largely unnoticed imperfections) we stop worrying about perfection. Normal speakers speak imperfectly all the time - and they are normal! And when we stop thinking in terms of disfluency (the rat-bag term for any and every imperfection of speech, whether it has anything to do with stuttering or not) we are left focusing on the core or stuttering, the block, and the maladaptive things we do to get out of a block.

Take-home message: you don't need to become fluent, you are fluent. Stutterers are not disfluent. Stutterers suffer from a speech pathology, a condition that causes interruptions (blocks) during the production of words. The generic name for what results when a person with this condition experiences a speech block (repeats, prolongations, etc.) is stuttering. Not disfluency. Non-stutterers don't go to their doctor complaining of disfluency. There are no professional speech pathologists treating clients for pausing and interjecting 'you know' into sentences inappropriately. What stutterers should seek is not fluency, but less interruptions by stutter blocks and the resulting maladaptive mess we make of ourselves, and more 'normal' speech. That's normal in all it's imperfect glory.

Note: please don't fear normal/abnormal. Cancer is the abnormal growth of cells and tissues in the body. Diabetes is the abnormal regulation of blood sugar. Abnormal is not a value judgement. Normal is what comes out when the system is functioning properly. Let's not be in denial and pretend that what we do is not abnormal. The very last thing stutterers need as a group is more denial.

1 comment:

  1. Mark - An interesting post, and intriguing to learn the history of how the concept of fluent/fluency has shifted in meaning.

    Glad to see you blogging again!