When Colin Firth, in his portrayal of King George VI in The King’s Speech, stepped before a radio microphone and saw the sea of faces before him only to stammer his way through his closing speech to the British Empire Exhibition in 1925, Karen Czarnik clutched herself.
An associate professor of communication disorders and a stuttering expert at , Czarnik suddenly felt the pain, anxiety and shame experienced by her clients who stutter.
“It went through my heart,” Czarnik said.
Nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best actor, The King’s Speech is the true story of Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Queen Elizabeth’s father), a life-long stutterer who found himself thrust reluctantly into the role as King George VI of England, after his older brother, Edward, famously gave up the throne for “the woman I love.”
The King’s Speech follows King George’s attempts to tame his stammer with the help of an Australian elocutionist and find his voice to rally and comfort his countrymen in a speech in which he declared war on Hitler’s Germany.
“I cannot talk enough about this movie,” Czarnik said. “People who stutter have been portrayed in the movies as the person who can’t get anything right, the person who misses the boat or the guy everyone makes fun of. This is the first movie where the person who stutters is the hero—someone everyone looks up to and someone who is courageous.”
Czarnik teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in communication disorders. She also supervises graduate students who work at Saint Xavier’s Ludden Speech and Language Clinic, treating local residents for a variety of communication disorders, ranging from articulation problems, language issues and stuttering, to helping stroke and brain injury patients regain their speech.
“In 60 percent of the population, there is a genetic predisposition to stuttering,” Czarnik said. “We know it’s not psychological or stress. In most clients who stutter, there are neurological differences. Persons that stutter, (their) brains function differently than persons who don’t.”
In the non-stuttering population, speech and language are controlled from the brain’s left hemisphere. For the stuttering population, speech and language are controlled by the brain’s right hemisphere. One of the therapies used for treating stuttering moves speech and language back to the brain’s left hemisphere.
Czarnik said she often speaks to clients about King George and found Firth’s stuttering in the film “very authentic.”
“I just really think he did an amazing job doing an authentic portrayal of someone who stutters,” Czarnik said, “from the emotion and anxiety to the stuttering behaviors themselves.”
Historians credit Lionel Logue, the Australian elocutionist, for helping to save the British Monarchy during one of its darkest hours. Logue eventually became King George’s vocal coach, helping the king through such major speeches as his coronation address.
Before King George found Logue, archaic treatments popular in the early 1900s were attempted to treat his stammer, including talking with a mouth full of marbles, and smoking to control his breathing. Logue diagnosed poor coordination between George’s larynx and thoracic diaphragm, and worked with him to overcome his stuttering during public speaking.
Many of the techniques pioneered by Logue are used today to treat stuttering. In the film, Logue has the king read a passage from a book while listening to music on headphones. George reads the passage fluently.
Czarnik called it “delayed auditory feedback.”
“Masking noise for stuttering is usually white noise,” she said. “There are at this point in time delayed auditory feedback devices ... It tricks your brain into thinking you’re talking with another person. Persons who stutter are usually fluent in unison speech, such as saying the Pledge of Allegiance or a prayer with a group. It can help individuals be more fluent.”
Other techniques used in the film that Czarnik uses to help clients who stutter include “easy onset speech,” which coordinates breathing with vocal chord movements. Stutterers are taught to hold on to vowel sounds longer and to pause a few seconds before speaking to allow fluency in speech.
“It doesn’t take the stutter away or cure it,” Czarnik said. “With my own clients, what we’re trying to do is give them tools that work for them when they need them. It takes a lot of focus and effort to change the way you speak all day.
“I think George was able to find techniques that worked very effectively for him so he could be fluent. In the movie, as soon as his speech was over you saw George walking away with Lionel and his stutter was back.”
Stuttering disorders range from mild to profound, and are as different as the individual. The disorder often disappears when stutterers sing, speak in unison with a group, or talk to a baby or pet, because the vocal intonations are different than regular speech.
Beside King George, other famous stutterers include country and western singer Mel Tillis, actors Bruce Willis and Marilyn Monroe, and journalist John Stossel.
Czarnik sets three goals for clients who stutter: to accept their stuttering; to accept that it’s OK to stutter; to realize it’s not OK to not say what you want.
“You need to be able to say what you want when you want to get your basic wants and needs met, and to know that you have a voice and you’re important,” Czarnik said. “Logue helped George realize that he had a voice and that he could use that voice to lead his nation was a major theme in the movie.”
Saint Xavier University’s Ludden Speech and Language Clinic provides diagnosis and treatment for various communication disorders to community members on a sliding fee scale. All clinical services are supervised by licensed speech pathologists and is part of a training program for Saint Xavier students preparing for careers in speech disorders. The clinic is located in Pacelli Hall at 3700 W. 103rd St. on the Chicago campus. For more information, call 773-298-3571.