PWSS

Shuozhi, Utah-China

I grew up in China and had a stutter since I was six or seven years old. I don’t remember how it started. My guess is that it has something to do with me starting going to primary school around that time. Most Chinese speak Mandarin but there are many dialects. To help people communicate with each other, Standard Mandarin was created decades ago. This was the version of Mandarin taught at school in China and learned by most non-native Chinese speakers worldwide. As children, we were required to speak it at school whenever possible. My guess is that it was learning the new dialect that triggered my stutter. Another possible reason is that starting primary school was also when I started to talk with many children of my age. That was a big change for a single child. 

My stutter mainly concerns block. When I hit a block, I would hit the wall or desk with my hands trying to push the word out. It was particularly embarrassing when I was called by the teacher to answer a question in class. I had a classmate in primary school who also stuttered. Near the end of the primary school, he grew out of it but I did not.

Like everyone else in my generation in China, I started learning English in middle school (around age 12). Learning an entirely new language worsened my stutter. In the textbook, there were two young girls: Lily and Lucy. Sometimes a pair of students (regardless of the gender) were asked to play these two persons and read the conversations in the textbook. Once I was assigned as Lucy, but I could not say the word “Lily” because I had trouble with words that start with a consonant followed by the vowel “ee”.

Then I went to high school, where the only thing everyone (teachers, parents, and students) cared about was the test score. At the end of the high school, there would be a National College Entrance Examination. It is somewhat similar to SAT in the US. But unlike SAT, that exam was the only thing that decided whether you could go to college and, if you could, what kind of college would you be admitted to. As a result, unlike the high schools in the US, there were virtually no extracurricular activities in Chinese high schools, at least not when I went to high school between 2001 and 2004. Fortunately, I did well in most tests in high school so nobody really cared about my stutter. In fact, I bet many students in China would prefer to be a stutterer if this could get them into a better university. The Examination was that important. I however would prefer to be a non-stutterer in exchange for lower test scores.

Eventually I went to college. It was a university in Beijing, some 1200 miles from my hometown. The engineering programs in my alma mater are among the top ten in China, and sometimes top five, depending on which ranking system one believes in. Again, I had trouble with Standard Mandarin. Almost everyone in Beijing speaks Standard Mandarin, or a version of Mandarin very close to it. In my hometown, we only speak it at school and switch to our own dialect at home. So that was a big change for me, speech-wise. I also continued having trouble with English classes, which were (and still are) mandatory. I kept stuttering a lot. My test scores in college were not as good as those in high school, and they were no longer that important in college. As a result, my college experience was not a happy one.

Near the end of my senior year, I decided to go to graduate school. So in 2008 I moved to another city in China and eventually got my master’s degree there. As I was finishing my master’s thesis, I applied for Ph.D. programs in the US and got admitted into a university in Atlanta. I came to the US in August 2011. That was almost a decade ago.

The first few years were stressful. My stutter certainly played a role, but it was far from the only issue I needed to deal with. I am a member of the largest ethnic group in the world, and a native speaker of the most spoken language in the world. But in the US, I am an ethnic and language minority, and ironically, an overrepresented minority in academia. Above all these, I was a foreigner on a student visa. There were so many things I needed to get used to, such as food, social customs, and style of life. When I speak Chinese and I stutter, native Chinese speakers would immediately know that I have a speech problem. They won’t question my familiarity with the language. But when I speak English and I stutter, Americans would think my English is poor, because I indeed speak “broken” English with a strong accent. And look at me, I have the word “foreigner” written all over my face. Understandably, most people have neither patience nor knowledge to distinguish between language skills and speech skills. For what’s worth, my English was indeed improved during my Ph.D. years. In the first year, in the classroom, I could understand only 10 to 20% of what the professors said; in the final year, I could understand at least 95% of the words. But this only concerned my listening skills. My speaking skills, however, were improved much less.

In 2017, I left Atlanta and moved to California to be a postdoctoral scholar. Since a postdoctoral position is a temporary one, I started to look for a more permanent position. Because I love doing research, I mainly applied for faculty positions at universities and staff positions at national labs. It took some time, but I gradually learned that national labs, which are managed by the Department of Energy, will not hire me. So my only hope to do research as an independent researcher is to be a faculty member. I firmly believe that I can do the job. There are three tasks of a faculty member: research, teaching, and service. I can do all of them and do all of  them well. Over the past couple of years, I did over a dozen phone or video interviews with all kinds of universities in the US. But I was never invited for a follow-up on-campus interview. The main reason was my stutter. The search committee members worried that I may not be able to teach. Since there are so many candidates (more than 400 for a single position at some universities), why would they take the risk and hire me? Eventually I realized that there is no way I could get a faculty position without beating my stutter first. I started reading books on this topic. I first read two books: “Advice to those who stutter” by the Stuttering Foundation –– it is free and can be found online, and “Understanding and controlled stuttering” by William Parry –– I bought it from Amazon. Both are very good books. I learned two important lessons: “stutter is something you do, not something that happens to you” and “stutter is curable.” However, there lacked a program that can help me in a systematic fashion. A personal training is important because no two stutterers are the same. So I kept searching for books and stumbled upon Lee’s book on Amazon. It had near-perfect rating, so I decided to give it a shot. I bought the third edition in May 2020 and finished reading it in July 2020. Reading the book alone reduced about 60% of my stuttering. But I was not satisfied with my progress. Then I learned about SAC and started attending SAM meeting since August 2020. After one SAM club meeting in October, Lee reached out to me and offered to coach me. I have been doing weekly coach sessions with Lee since then.

Lee helped me realize the significance of daily practice. The main problem with my speech is block, because at some feared words (mainly a consonant, e.g., “b” or “d”, followed by vowels “ee” or “eh”), my articulators get stuck and don’t move. Logically, the key to address this issue is to for them to move. Human articulators include vocal cord, palates, tongue, lips, jaw, teeth, etc. They have to be well coordinated to produce fluency. In my case, one or more articulators get stuck and the others won’t move. It is like four cars are moving side-by-side on a four-lane road, then suddenly the road is narrowed to a two-lane one. No car is willing to yield, and hence the traffic jam. When that happens, instead of forcing all cars, or in my case, all my articulators, to move together, I could just force one of them to move and hopefully that the rest of them will follow. I chose jaw because that is one thing I can easily control. When I speak, I pay attention to my jaw movement and always keep it moving. As a result, I link my words (Crutch #10).

Lee also taught me the importance of slowing down and insertion of a full stop every 1 to 7 words. I watch news and late night shows every day and the anchors and hosts speak very fast (about 200 words per minute). Also in work I am surrounded by professors who just love to talk, and most of them speak faster than average people. So subconsciously I thought the only way to impress people is to speak fast. After starting doing coach sessions with Lee, I watched videos of Walter Cronkite, a news anchor of CBS from 1950s to 1970s. He reported news at a speed of 124 words per minute. I then knew that one can speak slowly and be impressive.

I believe that speaking too fast is the main reason why some stutterers have problems with their speech when they talk on the phone, talk with an authority figure, and tell a joke. In the first case, they assume that the listener is impatient, in the latter two cases, they try too hard to impress the listener(s). For example, in telling a joke, the speaker knows where the punch line is but the audience does not. The speaker also knows that the punch line is what matters and he/she worries that the audience may get impatient unless he/she gets there ASAP. So the speaker rushes to the punch line, and hence the problem. The solution, in my opinion, is Crutch #11. One needs to talk on the phone like a King/Queen, tell a joke as a King/Queen (mind you, a King or Queen can tell a joke!), and talk to anyone, including authority figures, like a King/Queen. The last one is particularly important. I used to fear authority figures because I thought they are smart and they can see me through. I read a book on social psychology and learned that it is a common mistake. 99.99% of people cannot see through a stranger, and frankly, they don’t even care to.

Is it possible to speak fast and fluently like the news anchors? Of course. But I am not there yet. At this stage, I have to choose between “speak fast and stutter and no one understands me” and “speak slowly without stuttering and people understand me”. I choose the latter with no reservation.

It is Jan 2021 now. I haven’t had a bad speech incident (appearing speech disabled) in over a month.  

I have been attending SAC’s SAM speech club on Saturdays and this helps a lot, because I can hear other ex-stutterers explain how they beat it. I also attend the Toastmasters club meetings, which I highly recommend, but SAM speech club is different. Its participants are ex-stutterers and those becoming ex-stutterers, and that makes it a place that I want to be. These people understand me and I understand them. We help each other. Anyone who stutters should stop accepting it and study Lee’s books and join SAC and stop their stuttering. I also encourage all stutterers to read other books as well if they have time. The more you understand the problem (not just stuttering, but speech mechanism in general), the better chance you will have to beat it. Stuttering can be stopped and there’s no better time than now to do it.

I want to thank Lee for giving me so much of time to coach me and I want to thank everyone at SAC for creating a community where stutterers can stop their stuttering and work together to prevent relapses. It’s a wonderful new day for stutterers. Stuttering is no longer a life sentence.

Certainly, stuttering is not the only speech problem I need to address to become a faculty member. I also have problems with the English language itself and have an accent. I am working on these two as well.

SHUOZHI, Utah-China, January 2021

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