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Science
WRESTLING WITH WORDS
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Exploring the process of speaking and the causes of stammering.
Wednesday 18 February 2004 21.00-21.30pm

Every word we utter calls on 37 muscles and thousands of nerves. It's not surprising that for many of us the process goes wrong. The result - a debilitating stammer or just everyday "disfluency". Life-long stammerer and broadcaster, Philip French, explores the process of speaking and gives new insight into the causes of stammering.

Wrestling with Words
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We all hesitate, fluff, stumble and introduce - often embarrassing - spoonerisms from time to time. It's called mild disfluency and most of us manage to communicate despite our often imperfect speech. At the other extreme of disfluency, a stammer can be debilitating. About 5% of pre-school age children and half a million adults stammer in the UK. But despite this affliction being so widespread, scientists have been frustrated in their efforts to pin-point what causes us to stammer.

In this programme Philip French explores how new research is at last giving people who stammer hope of a real understanding of this often embarrassing and sometimes debilitating affliction. He draws on demonstrations and case histories, including his own, as well as contributions from experts at the cutting edge in speech therapy, neuroscience, psychology and psycholinguistics.

Philip French explores the reasons why we are more likely to be disfluent when talking on the telephone rather than face to face; Why we introduce more errors into dialogue than monologue; Why we are more fluent when giving instructions than describing pictures. This programme reveals how we produce speech and how this process can fail. Using functional brain imaging, scientists are now able to pin-point the areas of the brain involved in processing language. Fluent speakers process language remarkably fast, producing about 5 words every 2 seconds. Disfluency occurs when one of the stages in this complicated language process breaks down.

Stammering is the most extreme form of disfluency; often making life miserable for those affected. But thanks to recent breakthroughs, psychologists are now beginning to understand what makes people stammer. It's less likely to be due to psychological trauma such as bullying at school, or physiological difficulties in articulating words. New research is revealing evidence of a family history of stammering. We may even be close to isolating a 'stammering' gene. Scientists in Germany have now discovered differences in structure and function between the brains of people who stammer and people who don't. In Britain, psychologists have found evidence that people who stammer may be over-vigilant in monitoring and planning speech.

The programme is presented by Philip French, who is the Observer film critic and was for many years a BBC broadcaster.
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