Letter from Munich: Speaking the Speech

Thoughts on an alleged impediment.

After almost three months in Germany, I can say it has been an experience like none other. I’m visiting places which for so long were just pictures in books (and imaginaries in my head), meeting so many new people from around the world, and inching (however slowly) forward with my dissertation research. It is, for lack of a better phrase, a big thing to uproot your life and move to another county for any extended period of time. For this and so many other reasons, I count myself so lucky to be able to have this adventure with the support of my husband Robert and so many others back in the US and here in Germany.

Being in Munich takes me into “phase two” of my research year and plenty of new challenges, though mastering German remains at the top of the list. Indeed, learning another language has brought back a challenge that I have not had to deal with strongly for a number of years: my stutter. In a strange way, these two concerns have become bound up more than I would have expected. And since today is International Stuttering Awareness Day, the reflection is all the more important. First designated in 1998 by the International Stuttering Association, this day is intended to raise public awareness of stuttering, which impacts one percent of the world’s population.

For much of my childhood and adolescence, this speech impediment was one of my defining characteristics, as much as academic performance and the nickname “Prender.” I started speech therapy in the second grade to correct a lisp, and sometime after that was corrected, my stutter set in. I have vague recollections of some particularly anxiety-inducing episodes in that period, which may have exacerbated the whole matter. I’m a nervous person by nature, a trait that has its benefits but plenty of drawbacks.

Not a day goes by that I do not regret that I did not take speech therapy as seriously as I should have when I was younger. I have seen the reports my schools sent home to my parents, and for reasons which I can’t remember, my interest in it bottomed out in middle school. I don’t know whether it was pubescent priggishness or the sense that I would overcome the difficulty on my own. Probably both but more of the former. Those were particularly difficult years of coming to terms with being gay, amongst other things.

Over the last ten years, my speech has reached a level of fluency I once would have thought impossible. I was particularly proud of my paper delivery at a conference in Salzburg at the beginning of September, which was easily the best I have done to date. My stutter will occasionally return in particularly anxiety-inducing circumstances or when I get particularly enthusiastic in conversation. Some interactions will never not be difficult. There are times (really all of the time) I would rather walk on broken glass than make a telephone call to a complete stranger, the one type of conversation which is the hardest for me to feel comfortable and fluent. Once I was working for a school phone-a-thon, and I was stuttering and stumbling over words so badly I was either rudely told to get off the line or whoever answered simply hung up.

At least once, almost everyone falls prey to the habit of trying to finish a word or sentence for you when you’re dealing with a particularly strenuous block. While the gesture is appreciated, in my own opinion, it does more for us if people let us finish our own thoughts. We are already highly conscious of taking time in our communication and being prompted—however good the intention—does little to improve self-esteem.

I was not anticipating my stuttering to rear itself in my German, but it has for reasons that are not surprising. German is a language of directness, and if one is not clear on something, the seas immediately get rough. The metaphor of fluency as sea travel is apt. I have been reminded several times of Thomas Mann’s character Wendell Kretzschmar from Doktor Faustus since arriving in Germany. Mann is one of the few authors to give an accurate depiction of stuttering, something made more treacherous in German because of its intricate grammar and wealth of consonant sounds. Chapter Eight of Faustus, where Kretzschmar delivers a lecture on Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the op. 111, describes with poignant yet appropriate comic detail how the smooth sailing of the speaker goes on until the “Augenblick der Auffahrens.” Mann’s first translator Helen Lowe-Porter rendered that phrase in English as the “moment of disaster” while John E. Woods’s more recent translation realizes the passage as “moment of shipwreck.” Auffahren is not properly a noun in German but a nominalization of auffahren, meaning, variously, to flare up, bump, or tailgate. These meanings are all apt in the situation, but “shipwreck” speaks volumes because I can quite honestly say that that is exactly what it feels like. One is moving smoothly through a conversation, but then, suddenly, one can sense the catastrophe about to manifest, and when that break in the flow of words happens, it can give one the feeling of ramming into an iceberg. Most people here are understanding. Generally, cafe workers are the most damning, but nothing can strike fear into one’s heart like the cold stare of a worker at the local Bürgeramt.

But one must work to improve. Speaking is only bettered by speaking. One cannot and should not stay mum. Mistakes are there to embraced. Fears are there to be conquered not tolerated. Practice and patience are the watchwords. Patience. Dear Lord, patience.

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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