When you were younger and first began talking, you may have lisped, stuttered,
or had a hard time pronouncing words. Maybe you were told that it was "cute," or not
to worry because you would soon grow out of it. But if you're in your teens and still
stuttering, you may not feel like it's so endearing.
You're not alone. More than 3 million Americans have the speech disorder known
as stuttering (or stammering, as it's known in Britain). It's one of several conditions
that can affect a person's ability to speak clearly.
Some Common Speech and Language Disorders
Stuttering is a problem that interferes with fluent (flowing
and easy) speech. A person who stutters may repeat the first part of a word (as in
wa-wa-wa-water) or hold a single sound for a long time (as in caaaaaaake).
Some people who stutter have trouble getting sounds out altogether. Stuttering is
complex, and it can affect speech in many different ways.
Articulation disorders involve a wide range of errors people can make when talking. Substituting
a "w" for an "r" ("wabbit" for "rabbit"), omitting sounds ("cool" for "school"), or
adding sounds to words ("pinanio" for "piano") are examples of articulation errors.
Lisping refers to specific substitution involving the letters "s"
and "z." A person who lisps replaces those sounds with "th" ("simple" sounds like
Cluttering is another problem that makes a person's speech difficult
to understand. Like stuttering, cluttering affects the fluency, or flow, of a person's
speech. The difference is thatstuttering is a speech disorder, while cluttering
is a language disorder. People who stutter have trouble getting out what they want
to say; those who clutter say what they're thinking, but it becomes disorganized as
they're speaking. So, someone who clutters may speak in bursts or pause in unexpected
places. The rhythm of cluttered speech may sound jerky, rather than smooth, and the
speaker is often unaware of the problem.
Apraxia (also known as verbal apraxia or dyspraxia) is an oral-motor
speech disorder. People with this problem have difficulty moving the muscles and structures
needed to form speech sounds into words.
What Causes Speech Problems?
Normal speech might seem effortless, but it's actually a complex process that needs
precise timing, and nerve and muscle control.
When we speak, we must coordinate many muscles from various body parts and systems,
including the larynx, which contains the vocal cords; the teeth, lips, tongue, and
mouth; and the respiratory system.
The ability to understand language and produce speech is coordinated by the brain.
So a person with brain damage from an accident, stroke, or birth defect may have speech
and language problems.
Some people with speech problems, particularly articulation disorders, may also
have hearing problems. Even mild hearing
loss can affect how people reproduce the sounds they hear. Certain birth defects,
such as a cleft palate, can interfere
with someone's ability to produce speech. People with a cleft palate have a hole in
the roof of the mouth (which affects the movement of air through the oral and nasal
passages), and also might have problems with other structures needed for speech, including
the lips, teeth, and jaw.
Some speech problems, like stuttering, can run in families. But in some cases,
no one knows exactly what causes a person to have speech problems.
How Are Speech Problems Treated?
The good news is that treatments like speech therapy can help people of any age
overcome some speech problems.
If you are concerned about your speech, it's important to let your parents and
doctor know. If hearing tests and physical exams don't reveal any problems, some doctors
arrange a consultation with a speech-language pathologist (pronounced:
A speech-language pathologist is trained to observe people as they speak and to
identify their speech problems. Speech-language pathologists look for the type of
problem (such as a lack of fluency, articulation, or motor skills) someone has. For
example, if you stutter, the pathologist will examine how and when you do so.
Speech-language pathologists may evaluate their clients' speech either by recording
them on audio or videotape or by listening during conversation. A few clinics that
specialize in fluency disorders may use computerized analysis. By gathering as much
information as possible about the way someone speaks, the pathologist can develop
a treatment plan that meets each individual's needs. The plan will depend on things
like a person's age and the type of speech disorder.
If you're being treated for a speech disorder, part of your treatment plan may
include seeing a speech therapist, a person who is trained to treat
How often you have to see the speech therapist will vary — you'll probably
start out seeing him or her fairly often at first, then your visits may decrease over
time. Most treatment plans include breathing techniques, relaxation strategies that
are designed to help you relax your muscles when you speak, posture control, and a
type of voice exercise called oral-motor exercises. You'll probably
have to do these exercises each day on your own to help make your treatment plan as
successful as possible.
Dealing With a Speech Problem
People with speech problems know how frustrating they can be. People who stutter,
for example, often complain that others try to finish their sentences or fill in words
for them. Some feel like people treat them as if they're stupid, especially when a
listener says things like "slow down" or "take it easy." (People who stutter are just
as intelligent as people who don't.) People who stutter report that listeners often
avoid eye contact and refuse to wait patiently for them to finish speaking. If you
have a speech problem, it's fine to let others know how you like to be treated when
Some people look to their speech therapists for advice and resources on issues
of stuttering. Your speech therapist might be able to connect you with others in similar
situations, such as support groups in your area for teens who stutter.
If you have a speech problem, achieving and keeping control of your speech might
be a lifelong process. Although speech therapy can help, you are sure to have ups
and downs in your efforts to communicate. But the truth is that the way you speak
is only a small part of who you are. Don't be embarrassed to make yourself heard!