Peter Wehrwein

Oscar or not, The King’s Speech teaches about stuttering

The King’s Speech seems to be the front runner to win the Academy Award for Best Picture tonight. [Update: It did, of course, win the Oscar for Best Picture.] The movie has come in for some criticism for its depiction of the political machinations surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII  and Britain’s appeasement of Hitler. The British-born writer Christopher Hitchens, unsparing and deliciously eloquent as always, puts the politics of  George VI in a far less favorable light than the movie does.      

But The King’s Speech has won almost universal praise for its portrayal of the reluctant monarch’s stuttering, a speech pattern that includes involuntary repetition of sounds and syllables and “speech blocks” that cause prolonged pauses. Many young  children who stutter grow out of the problem, but perhaps as many 1 in every 100 adults are affected by the condition, 80% of whom are men. Stuttering clusters in families, so researchers have been searching for inherited genes that might cause the condition. Last year, in The New England Journal of Medicine, NIH researchers reported some success with results showing an association between three mutated genes and stuttering, although those mutations are probably responsible for a very small minority of cases. 

It’s been said that The King’s Speech will do for stuttering what Rain Man did for autism: plant a sympathetic view of a disability in the public consciousness. One danger of such a quick infusion of awareness, however, is that it can harden into a fixed, if largely favorable, stereotype. We are finding out—or are being reminded—about all the famous people who have stuttered (many of them writers). First-person accounts are popping up all over the place because of the film. The best I’ve come across is by Philip French, a British film critic, who describes vividly what it was like to listen to the radio broadcasts of the real King George VI, wondering if he would make it to the end “like a drunken waiter crossing a polished floor bearing a tray laden with wine glasses.”  French writes about the special anxiety in his family: 

In my household, however, there was an additional source of unease—a special elephant in the corner of the room or, more accurately, a little Dumbo at the festive table, namely myself. I can recall no social experience prior to the king at Christmas 1937 and thus I can’t remember a time when I too didn’t stammer. Increasingly as the years passed, I became conscious of my family and our guests at that special annual occasion pretending not to look in my direction and clearly wondering exactly how they should react in my discomfiting presence.

In the movie, the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, has his royal client, played by Colin Firth, sing, swear (the swearing is the reason for the film’s R rating), and perform various strange vocal exercises. Despite their quarrels and class differences, the strong bond between the two men (at one level, the movie is a Masterpiece Theater–style bromance) is also presented as being crucial  to the king’s heroic, and eventually successful, efforts to control  his stutter.  

After I saw the movie, and as a part of the runup to tonight’s show  I began to do a little research into stuttering. And after making some inquiries, last week I ended up emailing and then talking to Alex Johnson.  Johnson is provost and vice president for academic affairs and a professor of communication science and disorders at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, an organization that trains speech therapists as well as nurses and other health professionals. Diagnosis and treatment of stuttering has been a focus of Johnson’s clinical career. 

Certainly look beyond this blog post if you’re seeking expertise. But I’ll pass along a few of the things I learned from my conversation with Johnson, his blog post on The King’s Speech , a piece about Logue by Caroline Bowen, an Australian speech-language therapist who is an expert on Logue, and a  few other scattered sources.  

  • One semantic issue can be put to rest right off the bat: Johnson told me that stuttering and stammering are interchangeable. The only difference is that the British prefer stammer over stutter.  
  • Johnson and others familiar with stuttering are quick to point out the contrast between The King’s Speech and other depictions of stuttering. Here’s a portion of Johnson’s blog post:

This movie is so unique in its accurate representation of the stuttering experience. I have, over the years collected episodes of television shows, cartoons (Porky Pig?), popular movies (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjbkBjYwc84), and some novels that have included persons who stutter as characters. People who stutter are most often portrayed in these media as cognitively challenged, mentally unhealthy, shy, dangerous, or as the object of ridicule.  How difficult a road this has been for people who stutter.

  • Lionel Logue, the speech therapist played by Rush, was trained as an elocutionist, a now-extinct profession devoted to proper vocalization and public speaking. (Interesting fact from a quickie Google search: Alexander Graham Bell’s father was a prominent elocutionist.) In his native Australia, Logue was something of a celebrity, and his recitals were well attended. Like Logue, many early speech therapists and speech “correctionists” had been elocutionists, and understandably, they applied elocutionist techniques to speech therapy. So, for example,  in the movie, Logue has his star pupil repeat tongue twisters, a common exercise taught by elocutionists. 
  • Apparently, Logue never gave a full account of the techniques he used with the king.  Still, once you make allowances for the need to streamline messy history into a story (the screenplay for the movei also won an Oscar), most of what we see is probably a fairly good reflection of Logue’s techniques, according to Caroline Bowen. In her estimation, the two aspects that don’t ring true are the use of swearing to increase fluency (what a shame: it’s a hilarious scene) and His Royal Highness agreeing to let Logue call him by his nickname, Bertie.
  • Logue is shown using singing a lot in the royal therapy sessions. Johnson says that contemporary speech therapy for stutterers wouldn’t typically include singing but that therapists do use techniques that tap into the fluency that most stutterers experience when they sing and take into account the timing and rhythm of speech.
  • In one of the movie’s early scenes, Logue shows the then-Duke of York that he can speak without stuttering if he doesn’t hear his own voice as he speaks. Johnson told me that this scene bears some resemblance to “delayed auditory feedback” techniques that have been part of mainstream stuttering therapy for decades. Modern electronics have made it possible for people who stutter to wear auditory feedback devices that look like hearing aids. They cost about $4,000 to $5,000, according to a recent article in The Washington Post. Johnson said that some models help people who stutter by not delaying when they hear their own voice but also by slightly altering the pitch. 
  • Johnson told me that  stuttering therapy today falls into two broad categories: efforts aimed at modifying the behavior of speaking and those that focus on eliminating the fear of speaking. The King’s Speech is moving partly because Logue is portrayed as being such a master at easing fear: the mere commoner, and an Australian to boot, who calms the king. In the final scene of the movie, George VI,  facing the dreaded microphone, reads his speech more to Logue than to the radio audience.   

Comments:

  1. Baby Cots

    King Speech is really great movie. I’ve watch it twice in cinema. Awesome film and it’s wonderful to hear everyone like the movie.

  2. Ed Lange

    The Kings Speech is a wonderful movie about a common problem which should have most people much more sympathetic towards stutterers.

  3. Marc Azada

    The King’s Speech? wow! I have not seen this movie yet, but anyway i have heard a lot of good feedback from my friends that are into political talks and somehow they seem to enjoy this movie. I think iik am going to see this and get back here to tell you what i think about it.

  4. Anonymous

    A really cool movie for education. It was exciting to see the King’s Speech receive so many awards at the Oscars. It was a touching story of how cripling a stutter can be while providing hope and inspiration to those that suffer with this and other dibilitating problems.
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  5. Powerchairs

    Fantastic movie. It was nice to see a film like this and how an important individual struggle and took control of his problem. Thank you for the sensible critique. I truly appreciate this post and have been looking all over for this! You have made my day! Thx again.

  6. Yoli Oliver

    I loved that movie .
    We have so much to learn about improving and getting over are fears.
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  7. Jena Casbon

    As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I was worried that The King’s Speech would portray our ability to “cure” stuttering. Dysfluent speech is very difficult if not impossible to cure- rather we teach a variety of methods and techniques to improve fluency.

    I’m glad that the final scene in the movie showed King George’s use of the taught methods to improve his speech.

    Great film!
    Jena H. Casbon, MS CCC-SLP
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  8. Elaine

    Really enjoyed the film. It’s great to see what can be achieved through voice coaching. Many people believe they can’t even sing but given direction, find they can! And they love it!

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  9. raffy

    Well, The King Speech is really my choice to be the best picture because the movie is really good and it has a great impact to all audiences.
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  10. Eduardo

    I loved King’s Speech.
    I think movies with good messages, like King’s Speech, are the best. They sometimes even give good prespectives like this one, it let you see how the life of a strutter is (even tough he is king, well you guys get the idea).
    I am making a website about movies, I’m reviewing my favorite movies and posting the reviews to it.
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  11. Emil

    I also like this movie. This movie is not only about doctor/patient relationship film. The King’s speech is about how to deal with a problem. I think Lionel Logue character in this movie was brilliant.

  12. Get Rid of Shyness

    Loved “The Kings Speech”. That movies deserved the awards. Growing up, I had a stuttering growing up. I had a friend with the same problem. Groups of kids would make fun of us, but it made it easier to handle by having a friend with the same problem. It was nice to see a film like this and how an important individual struggle and took control of his problem. The movie was so well done. This will be one of those movies that I will go back and watch over and over again. The actors were perfect.

  13. Managed Risk Investing Guy

    Fantastic movie that brings attention to a widespread problem.

  14. Gatorade Rules

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  15. AlexPsy

    What is really moving about this movie is how a King with a stammer is able to find the courage to fight for his country again against a dictator with a brilliant gift for speeches. Here you have a good man who struggles to put two words together vs a dictator with an hypnotic gift for speeches.

    And in the end, he prevailed. The country prevailed and so did this movie.

    As a former stutterer, I can related to those awful moments when he had to give a speech and everyone just stares at you. Remember that early scene at the beginning of the movie? Nothing can describe the horrible feeling of not able to say something that a 4 year old child can say without a problem.

    To answer Joel’s question, no I don’t think that there is a correlation between stuttering and autism. There is little research that shows any connection whatsoever.

    Autism: Warning signs – (http://www.psychone.net/autism.php)

    However… I developed social phobia, which is a bad problem in itself. Fortunately I’ve been able to learn to overcome it somewhat. People with autism do have difficulty relating/connecting to others so we do have in common one thing: isolation.

    Here is some information about social phobia that I’ve found:

    Social phobia – (http://helpguide.org/mental/social_anxiety_support_symptom_causes_treatment.htm)

    The difference is that stutterers have a social interest but are fearful of ridicule. People with autism, on the other hand, have little social interest (at least not like must of us do).

  16. schiller2de

    The King’s Speech is a great Movie
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  17. Joel Manzer

    You mentioned that the King’s Speech did for stuttering what Rain Man did for Autism.

    Reading this and a question popped into my mind here:

    Do you think there could be a possible correlation between autism and stuttering?

    Of course you may not have thought of this question, but just curious what your thoughts may be on the subject.

    Looking forward to your response.

    Sincerely,
    Joel Manzer, Lead Editor

  18. Maggie Brown

    It was exciting to see the King’s Speech receive so many awards at the Oscars. It was a touching story of how cripling a stutter can be while providing hope and inspiration to those that suffer with this and other dibilitating problems.

  19. Judy Kuster

    The best major resources on the Internet for information and support for stuttering are:

    Stuttering Foundation (http://www.stutteringhelp.org),

    National Stuttering Association (http://westutter.org),

    FRIENDS: The National Association of Children Who Stutter (http://www.friendswhostutter.org/),

    British Stammering Association (http://www.stammering.org), and

    The Stuttering Home Page (http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/kuster/stutter.html)