I had the privilege of attending Canada’s Stuttering Foundation conference in the fall and had an interesting interaction. I met an individual from Quebec who told me that he preferred to speak English as he stutters more in French (his first language). This got me thinking — how does being bilingual impact a stutter?
A stutter is a disruption in the forward flow of speech, which can be characterized by blocks (not being able to get the words out), prolongations (prolonging word sounds) and repetitions (repeating certain sounds of words). Each individual who stutters has unique experiences. The research on bilingual stuttering is mixed and minimal, so some weak theories exist. No matter what — it is still interesting to read about!
A 2009 British study revealed that children are more vulnerable to stuttering if they have an environment with an increased language demand. This study looked at preschool students who were studying two simultaneous languages in preschool (Howell, Davis & Williams, 2009). While the results of the study are not strong, the study concluded that a second language should only be learned when a first language is solidly acquired. Another study described one boy who was exposed to English, Hebrew and was spoken to in Hungarian by his grandparents (Karniol, 1992). At the age of two, he began to stutter, and when his parents began only speaking Hebrew to him — his stutter went away. This study highlighted that children should not be exposed to language which exceeds their linguistic ability. The parents made a decision to incorporate English again at the age of three, but the study did not list the implications of the language on his stutter.
Another study from Iowa State University found that stuttering was more prevalent amongst bilingual individuals (Travis, Johnson, & Shover, 1937). Although Howell, et al. identified that an individual is less likely to stutter the later they learn their second language.
Other studies recommend that children learn another language as soon as they can to ensure that they master the sounds of other languages. Although a standard definition of bilingualism does not exist. Early bilingualism is when a child is exposed to a second language from childhood, whereas “second language” or “later bilingualism” is when they are exposed at school. Bilingual progress can also change over time, depending on the amount of practice, exposure, etc.
I’ve written articles before on how speaking a different language can make you feel like a different person. If you’re a person who stutters, can feeling like a different person (by speaking another language) positively or negatively impact stuttering? While it is really hard to research this, it is something to think about. While focusing on the cause of stuttering may provide peace of mind, moving forward and making an individual who stutters feel more supported is essential. When speaking to someone who stutters make sure to give them your full attention, show interest and be patient. Everyone has an extra minute to allow someone to share their thoughts. Your presence and reactions can make the world of a difference.
Howell, P., Davis, S., & Williams, R. (2009). The effects of bilingualism on stuttering during late childhood. Archives of disease in childhood, 94(1), 42–46.
Karniol, R. (1992). Stuttering out of bilingualism. First Language, 12, 255–283.
Van Borsel, J., & Britto Pereiria, M. (2005). Assessment of stuttering in a familiar versus an unfamiliar language. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 30, 109–124.