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Examining why people stutter



ROMA – Stuttering is a common speech disorder that we rarely talk about.

Maky Bridget Letsie, a National University of Lesotho (NUL) graduate, says she has always been fascinated by why people stutter.

As a student at the NUL, she wanted to closely understand stutterers so she could educate people to treat them with respect.

In her research, she made captivating observations about stuttering which she said is often defined as, “a speech disorder in which the flow of speech is (marked by) involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables, words and phrases.”

She first made an observation that people stutter when they speak but when they sing, stuttering disappears.

Also, she has always suspected that stuttering had something to do with breathing rates.

So from mild stutterers to severe ones, she wanted to understand them.

A number of things motivated her to study stutterers.

“First I am a mild stutterer myself,” she says.

In fact, according to her, most people become mild stutterers now and then, depending on the situation.

Have you noticed that?

“Second, both my mom and gradma are mild stutterers,” she says.

“Worse still, my gradma had a child who couldn’t speak.”

All these things instilled in her, a passion to learn more about speech disorders, and after she did a course in psychology of language at the NUL, stuttering became an obvious target.

“My studies came in two versions,” she says.

“First I made a pre-study on how stutterers’ breathing rates varied when they were talking and when they were singing.”

She wanted to have a taste of what to expect, hence a pre-study.

After silently observing a number of stutterers among her peers at the NUL for some time, she cautiously approached them to find out if they could be willing to participate in her study.

Some refused, of course.

Others thought it was no big deal and they participated.

But she had no tools so she improvised, at least after consulting with scholars in the NUL’s Faculty of Health.

She asked the stutterers to sing and to talk as she captured their breathing rates in a video during the processes.

She would later meticulously observe the breathing cycles against time during both singing and talking on the videos.

“I saw a big difference. When they sang, stutterers had lower breathing rates than when they talked. But my methods were rudimentary.”

So she moved into a full study.

Again she enlisted willing participants who were stutterers on the condition that they remained anonymous.

She didn’t even know some of them herself.

This time she had to be a bit more scientific, so she needed to use a scientific machine – electrocardiogram.

She was introduced to this machine at St Joseph’s Hospital in Roma.

One kind doctor helped her with the understanding of how to use the machine.

Using this complex machine, she did not measure breathing rates directly but used extrapolations from heartbeats to breathing rates.

“The results were still the same after this study, breathing rates were higher in speaking than in singing and the stuttering was barely noted when singing compared to when speaking,” Letsie says.

“Of course the breathing rate phenomena could be extended to people without a stuttering problem. People generally breathe slowly when they sing.”

As she combed through literature and compared it with what she was learning, she discovered a few interesting things.

It turns out an average person has two ways of breathing, a normal breathing and the kind of breathing one experiences after an activity such as running.

Stutterers, she found out, were more inclined to adopt the latter breathing tendency under normal conditions.

But there is something more she learned about the role of breathing.

“When you sing, even if you still produce the same words you use in talking, singing tends to be slower, more relaxed than talking,” she revealed.

“Take for instance, when you are singing a national anthem and when you are just speaking the words in the anthem. You are more likely to finish faster when speaking than when singing the same flow of words.”

So why is her study worth a big note?

First of all, although some people have severe stuttering, a problem which is often associated with genetic inheritance, stuttering is common even on people who are not necessarily known as stutterers.

Even worse, such mild stuttering can happen in awkward times such as when one is giving a presentation, in which case some are anxious and breath faster.

While Letsie is the first to admit that she is no speech therapist, she feels that from this study, she learned that relaxing, slowing down and breathing slowly could be one of the ways to control stuttering although the degree of control will always depend on the severity of the problem.

But, “in the end, I just wanted to bring some public attention to stuttering, the problem we rarely give attention to,” says the NUL trained linguist.

Own Correspondent

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