Helping stutterers to find their voices

Updated: 2011-04-18 08:06

By Qin Zhongwei (China Daily)

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 Helping stutterers to find their voices

Language Friend Club members share a joke during a recent trip to Beijing's Changping district. Zou Hong / China Daily

Young and old are overcoming speech impediments by sharing their experiencesat the Language Friend Club, Qin Zhongwei reports.

When Niu Junmin watched the opening scenes of the movie The King's Speech, the true story of King George VI of Britain and his struggle to overcome a stammer, he could not help but think back to one horrific day at junior high school.

A new teacher, who had no idea about Niu's stutter, picked him to speak in front of the class. Niu recalls those 15 minutes as the most stressful of his life.

Yet, the episode also proved to be a turning point as it helped Niu realize the seriousness of his problem and launched him on a journey that would see him overcome his speech impediment once and for all.

Now 29, Niu is helping others to follow in his footsteps through the Language Friend Club, which began running shortly after International Stammer Awareness Day in 2009.

With about 30 regular members, including several students at Beijing's top universities, the group gathers every night for pronunciation exercises at Niu's health food store near Lishuiqiao subway station. Every Sunday, they also share their experiences of coping with a stammer.

Most begin by participating in what Niu calls his "one-month training program", although members usually keep going even after "graduation".

The club receives no funding or sponsorship, nor does it collect membership fees. "Sometimes members will order cheap drinks in my store as way of paying dues, but they don't have to," Niu told METRO.

According to official statistics, China has an estimated 13 million people with speech impediments, the majority of whom develop the speech impediment before the age of 10.

However, there are still no professional institutes devoted to research, or foundations offering support, said Niu.

Most members at the Language Friend Club say they lost confidence in the commercial training classes, most of which boast they can cure a stutter within one or two weeks, something that student Yu Kechen said is "not possible".

The Beijing postgraduate came to Niu after he quit his job and returned to college. He wanted to overcome his stammer during his two years on campus. Another club member, 22-year-old Liang Li, joined last October after his experience undergoing interviews with five Chinese Academy of Sciences professors. For 15 minutes, he said he was able to speak just five or six words.

Niu shares his story with every new member, including the details about how he endured days when every morning he woke up dreading the day ahead with "a stutter I could not get rid of", the fact that his girlfriend left him because of his stammer, and how he tried endless methods in different provinces and practiced eight hours a day to overcome it. And how, one day, he finally made a breakthrough and began speaking smoothly and confidently.

He said overcoming his stutter was essentially a routine job of practicing pronunciation day after day, but one which required patience and diligence.

He said there are five points that need to be continually kept in mind when practicing: smooth breathing, accurate pronunciation, soft speaking, paying attention to when to stop, and a clear rhythm.

This five-point principle, although not yet widely accepted, is being treated as gospel by the small circle at the club.

For newcomers, the club offers them hope and a supportive environment.

"Here I not only get to know others willing to offer a helping hand, but also realize that I am not alone," Guo Mengkang, a college student from Hebei province who joined the club at the end of March, told METRO.

During the recent Tomb-sweeping Day holiday, Niu and some of the members went to climb a mountain in Beijing's suburban Changping district.

Besides breathing the fresh air, the club joined in with the activities of the Beijing Speech Salon, a voluntary association with members committed to improving their public speaking skills.

In one session, they sat in a circle and were asked to introduce themselves. When it was Liang's turn, people burst into laughter when he introduced himself as a stutterer. But when he ended, his slow but empowering speech had people clapping enthusiastically.

"See, he made it. It is another step forward," Niu said.

Yu, who used to speak overly fast and stutter on big occasions, said he has improved a lot after finishing the one-month training and he is now the host of many experience-sharing sessions.


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