On Kings and Speech

This weekend I finally saw The King’s Speech. It interested me for several reasons, the least of which is it’s an Oscar contender for Colin Firth as best actor and the film as best picture. It intrigued me that the premise was about King George VI’s severe stammering. (He nickname was Bertie in the movie). I wondered how it could be presented in both an entertaining and informative way, why dealing with a painful and uncomfortable subject. I was keen because I have a speech impediment too.

Mine isn’t stammering. Rather it is same as British actor Jeremy Brett’s, rhotacism, the difficulty in saying the letter “R.” I am hearing impaired (profound loss in one ear, mild-moderate in the other) caused by being given too much oxygen at birth (I was born premature). Since I couldn’t pronounce what I couldn’t hear, I had to be taught the location of sounds, like consonants at the end of words. Apparently if some sounds aren’t learned during early speech development, like the Western distinction between the letters “R” and “L” for the Japanese, the speaker has a very difficult time producing it. I learned to approximate the “R” sound through speech therapy as a child and home grown efforts as an adult. On good days, my speech sounds like an accent nobody can place. On bad days, my diction is mushy at best. Sometimes I’m just too mentally tired to enunciate clearly. Only rarely do I stammer but that occurs under great stress. However, no matter what day I’m having, speech is a conscious constant effort because I’m always aware it’s my primary visible means of communicating with other human beings and of how I’m perceived.

So I felt personally connected to Bertie’s plight. He was a public figure, born to be a ceremonial figurehead and boster the morale of his people, but speaking was the bane of his existence. Plus he had to endure the discomfort and embarrassment around him as he struggled to express the simplest thoughts. He was locked into a vicious circle of fear of others’ expectations, anxiety over his notion of duty, and reactions of listeners. However, Bertie was so determined to fulfill his duty that he was able to overcome his impediment with the help of speech therapist Lionel Logue played brilliantly by Geoffrey Rush. His stammering was never cured; he learned to compensate so that it wasn’t so apparent. Although the story took place in rarefied circles with people we commoners can never really understand, at heart it was a simple story of a man trying to overcome his personal demons, albeit on the public stage. I certainly could empathize and came away with the thought that no matter how history treats George VI, his effort in this regard was truly commendable.

Colin Firth did an exemplary job as Bertie. I can imagine how challenging it was for an actor with no speech impairment to portray a historical figure with such a severe one in an accurate and believable manner. Just as it’s difficult to enunciate proper in this context, it’s equally a linguistic effort to do the reverse. I was acutely aware of how much work Firth put into that role. I would love to ask him in an interview what techniques he used to accomplish his task. (Also, he had to use the royal accent with vowels so rounded and syllables so strangled, that it’s dialect of it’s own.)I listened to the real speech, which was also depicted at the end of the film. King George sounded as if he were employing mere pauses for dramatic effect. The movie showed the physical and mental gymastics used during those pregnant pauses. I’m sure that other people like me with speech impediments nodded along with each line, knowing our own exercises and things we do to compensate every time we open our mouths.

I’m pleased the film highlighted the difficulties of people with speech impairments. When I was a child, many tended to associate hearing/language problems with low IQ which doesn’t necessarily correlate at all. A counselor actually told my mother I should transfer to a “special school.” Until I learned to compensate, I was often treated impatiently and retreated into silence as a result. I hope that those who rooted for the Bertie at the end of the film remember that feeling when they encounter people with language difficulties, especially children. Don’t be uncomfortable or wonder where are we from, just wait and listen.By the way, after the movie I suddenly remembered a stumbling block I encounter when I listen too long to another with a speech impediment: it becomes infectious. Because proper enunciation isn’t hard wired for me but consists mostly of smoke and mirrors, my tricks slip away. This dawned on me when trying to talk about – wait for it – Richard Armitage. Bizarrely I could say his first name but could barely get out the surname, when normally I had the opposite problem. Then I noticed I dropped syllables and slurred whole words. Jeremy Brett once said he had to practice elocution daily. Very true, my man, very true.

So I shall restart my exercises by repeating “Richard Armitage.” That’s not too bad actually. And as a treat for getting this far, Dear Reader, here’s more shiney:

Guy finally gives a damn; Robin Hood S3.9; RichardArmitagenet.com

16 thoughts on “On Kings and Speech

  1. I have not seen “The King’s Speech” yet, but with your brave review and insight into the problem am really looking forward to it.I had a school friend in my first grade, who had speech impairment. They took him completely out of school for one year to get help, as they did not want the other children to be cruel to him. As a child I did not understand the necessity for that, as I had no problem communicating with him.Thank you for your brave analysis!

    • Thank for the compliment but I don’t feel brave. I simply felt the need to spread awareness. Many abled people take a lot of things for granted because they have no understanding of what the opposite is like and how people deal with it. I think the film did a fabulous job of that.

  2. I recently met a lady with hearing impairment. She functions so well, that the penny only dropped on a further meeting. I have a very quiet voice, so am not unused to people to asking “pardon?” Finally noticed that she also turned to face me, and realised that she was supplementing any mechanical device with lip-reading. So now I know to project when with her.I have astigmatism and myopia, easily corrected, and I haven’t minded wearing glasses since the age of six. With parents and grandparents with no visual impairment before the usual mid-life reading glasses, I do put this down to premature birth. On the other hand, I read without glasses, hearing (so far) has been acute. Some cognitive processes of receiving information are easier to solve than are others. And I was so well-co-ordinated that I didn’t trip/bump into things, that it took the grade one teacher to notice that distance sight just might not be 20/20.We are still a long way from recognising the diverse cognitive processes and relating them to totally unrelated intelligence. And it is a stretch to incorporating it all into the education systems.And now, I have to go and do further work on my other cognitive blank spot, wrestling with a new laptop and W7, with all its expanded options and unfamiliar commands. I blame this too, on prematurity which didn’t allow time for the “math” side of the brain to develop.Onward and upward, judiang. Or as the WWII British version was, “Just Keep B********* on”Slainte!

    • The too-much-oxygen thing also impacted my vision, touch, and to a barely perceptible degree, balance. (I joked with my mother that I was probably born a genius too.)But it’s been the hearing/speech impairment that affected me the most because of the social interaction factor. It’s great you were able to quickly understand your friend’s difficulty and adjust accordingly. People usually don’t like calling attention to their issues unless forced to do so.I’m glad today’s educational systems are better at screening and identifying children who need help. However, I think sometimes they have moved in the opposite direction and handed out labels for the slightest problem to the detriment of the child. Even with all the assistance in the world, in the end an impaired child must learn the most important acquired skill, how to compensate.Hey, did I mention how much I love computers, when they work, that is? Slainte.

  3. judiang it’s so interesting what you say about the daily effort involved.I watched a programme on TV this week called The Real King’s Speech which was a kind of documentary follow-up to the film. It interviewed some other men who’d been helped by Logue and showed some unedited footage of King George making speeches (apparently the BBC used to edit out the longer pauses to make it all look more fluent).I found this real footage incredibly moving, almost more so than the film (CF was marvellous I agree and he has talked in one interview about what he did to achieve those effects. I’ll try to find it again).What got to me was the incredible weariness in the King’s eyes, which the other former stammerers also commented on. They said you could see the sheer mental and physical effort involved reflected in his eyes, and it was true.I commented to my partner that I found the real footage almost more moving than the film. But maybe the film has made it more moving for you, he said. And I think that’s true. If nothing else the CF’s performance has sensitized a lot of people and spread awareness, in the most sympathetic way possible. Which must be a good thing.Apparently the crass and pompous Archbishop of Canterbury went on the radio before the Coronation and said ‘Now the King has a speech impediment but we mustn’t get embarrassed about it’. Poor king.

    • Oh, I wish I could have seen that documentary. It sounds fascinating. It’s highly likely the film sensitized you to the historical footage, because you were given a behind the scenes view of what the King took to speak. That’s why I was so terribly impressed with CF’s performance because it was so authentic. He didn’t want to appear bogus and it showed.BTW, thanks so much for the link. It was a interesting and informative interview.

  4. I’m glad you raised the issue of “labels”, judiang. More education among professionals should be required to firmly establish a line between diagnosis and label and the quick-fix drug application. I can’t help wondering at the scores of unusually active children who have been stuffed with ritalin or its equivalents. Because it’s quicker and easier (and cheaper?) than the slower process of long therapy.

    • I deal with disability cases and run across many I’ve found suspect where the children are quick-fixed with drugs but the child is not really taught how to deal with his issue. It makes me wonder how such a child will go through adulthood. Drugs can stop working. Although people are more enlightened today, special accommodations are still not usually forthcoming.

  5. Thanks for the post, and for teaching me that difficulties with r have a name — that’s the kind of thing I love to hear.What your experiences remind me (and something that’s implicitly reflected in the film) is that people without the difficulty have to be told again, and again, and again. You speak of the tiredness in CF’s eyes — which I also found moving: my impression is that the double burden of this particular situation (first to insist on the right / capacity to communicate, and then to actually execute the communication) must be immensely fatiguing.My first cousin, about ten years older, is Deaf from birth — something that basically cut her off from her entire family of origin; she was sent to a state school as a child and though the school emphasized speech, she never learned to speak very clearly, and NO one in her nuclear family learned ASL. Eventually she learned to write English and that was how she talked to her family for her childhood; then later they got TTY, etc., but she missed those crucial years of bonding with them. She was closest to my grandmother, who made sure she came home regularly for family events, etc. When I was eight or nine we learned fingerspell at a Girl Scouting event and some basic ASL vocab (maybe thirty or forty words). I thought fingerspell was a great idea and that it could be used for illicit conversations in class but it never occurred to me that it had any connection at all to my life. At some family party I was bored and spelling things to myself at the dinner table and Lynn was sitting next to me and suddenly she grabbed my arm in excitement and started fingerspelling at a frightening rate. Yes, I had a Deaf cousin and I never bothered to think about it. Suddenly those lousy couple dozen words of ASL, taught to a room of bored little girls, became a very narrow bridge between us. They taught us the words, and I think that counted as being socially or culturally aware. But the people who taught us missed the crucial step: they never taught us that there were people who could need us to know them / notice them.I can only imagine how tired that must make Deaf people. To have to say again and again, I am here. Listen to me. Pay attention.If Bertie’s speech problems resulted in part from his relationship with his father (it sounds like the childrearing style constantly beat the children into the ground) and his incapacity to say “I am here, I am a human, I have the right to speak,” I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to learn public speaking for him. The mind pales.

    • Thank you for sharing your cousin’s story. I can imagine how isolated she must have felt. It’s sad that in those days people with disabilities were locked away or pushed to the fringes instead of integrated into society. As a child I was fascinatd by the Miracle Worker and what it must have been like for Helen Keller. People were inspired by her story but apparently only in a circus freak kind of way because things haven’t improved for children until the last 20 years or so.Bertie’s dedication to duty and his country was extraordinary. This was borne out in the film by the change in focus caused more enlightened times. The Miracle Worker focused on what it was like for Anne Sullivan (an abled person) to break through to Helen, not what it was like to be Helen. The King’s Speech showed what it was like to be Bertie and what such a disability feels like. The circus aspect was removed.

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