Stuttering in a foreign language

Text author: Raiani Sibien

In 2006, my family relocated from Brazil to Italy. Back then, I could only speak Brazilian Portuguese but it didn’t take long before I became fluent in Italian. Fluency in the new language didn’t mean speech fluency, on the contrary, for some unexplainable reason, I realised my stuttering often got worse when speaking in Italian. I’m not sure whether it’s the structure of the language or its phonetic sounds that influence the level of fluency in my speech, all I know is that I find it harder to get the words out in Italian.

Some would take advantage of the heavily used hand gestures – common in the Italian culture – to communicate and interact with others, but we can’t escape verbal communication for long. My days living in Italy were full of ups and downs in terms of speech fluency but new challenges were just around the corner.

In 2010, I moved to the United Kingdom to study. I had basic knowledge of English but was far from being fluent. After some months living and studying in London, my language skills confidence increased and I felt comfortable speaking in English. In this case, feeling comfortable included my ability to understand and express myself in the new language and therefore increase fluency patterns in my speech.

It’s interesting that the severity of my stuttering seems to change according to the language I am speaking. For instance, I am less likely to block in English than in Italian, while in Portuguese my fluency varies depending on my emotional state and self-esteem level.  For some reason, since the beginning, I always felt at ease speaking in English. In my opinion, speaking Italian required a lot more effort to properly pronounce the open sound vowels and consonants such as ‘R’, which do not come naturally to a Brazilian speaker. The reality is that I have no clue why I am more fluent in one language than another, nevertheless, it fascinates me that fluency changes can occur when speaking a foreign language.

Some people believe that we change personalities when speaking in a foreign language. This could help explain why individuals who stutter tend to be more fluent in a specific language. Perhaps, when speaking another language, we unconsciously impersonate a character that is not completely ourselves, like an actor in a movie pretending to be somebody else. I remember watching an interview with Bruce Willis about his stuttering, he explained how he learnt to better control his speech impediment while playing a character on stage. This stayed in my mind for many years and made me reflect on the relationship between stuttering and self-esteem. I believe that impersonating a character could increase fluency in some cases, but stuttering is handled and felt in different ways, thus it’s hard to predict what impact this would have on speech fluency. Furthermore, I guess most people who stutter don’t want a palliative but a real solution for their speech impediment, where they feel they can truly be themselves.

It’s also interesting to note that depending on the severity of the stuttering, it can go unrecognised due to being misinterpreted as a difficulty in speaking a foreign language. This is something that happens to me all the time and I can’t deny I’ve used it in my favour. Knowing some people might confuse disfluency as a language barrier often helped me shift my focus away from the way I speak, decreased my self-demand for fluency and reduced stuttering altogether.

I’m not sure how foreign languages impact stuttering, but the fact is that I do see a difference in my speech when speaking other languages.

Do you stutter and have similar experiences? Share your story with us :).


2 thoughts on “Stuttering in a foreign language

  • Richard Hall

    Hi, so I am 45 years old (next week) English and I’ve lived with a stutter for about 35 years now that I picked up on a house move. I only ever went to one speech therapy session as a pre-teen and I thought it was a waste of time and was never encouraged to return so I’ve kind of self taught myself to speak fluently ever since. I work as a desk clerk in a warehouse and communication is important in my role so I’ve learned to work around my stutter, but I do have off days.

    Just recently I’ve been learning to speak German with Duolingo and the other day I took on a challenge to strengthen my German speaking on the app. I found that when I read the phrases out loud I didn’t stutter or even “work around” my stutter. It was as if I didn’t have one at all. I wonder if it’s because of the part of the brain I’m using to speak German, and if I’m converting English to German whether the extra “travel time” from my brain to my mouth is helping, but I wonder what your thoughts are on this.

    • RaianiSibien

      Hello Richard,

      How are you? Thank you for sharing and nice to meet you! That’s a VERY good question to which I don’t have a clear answer. Nevertheless, I believe when we speak a foreign language, we can unconsciously incorporate a character as if that person speaking is not us entirely. For example, when I am imitating someone else speaking, I normally don’t stutter. Some actors who stutter say that on stage they are completely fluent as they are playing someone else. Thus, I believe that when speaking a foreign language, we can sometimes become more fluent as we detach ourselves from our mother tongue, which is part of our identity.

      I hope you are enjoying learning German – I find it a really difficult language to learn :).

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