13 People You Didn’t Know Overcame Stuttering
Stuttering affects more than 70 million people across the globe, including some very prominent figures who have overcome the speech disorder.
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Stuttering is more common than you think
Nearly everyone will stumble over words from time to time, whether in private conversation or while speaking publicly. But for the more than 70 million people worldwide coping with the communication disorder known as stuttering, it’s more than just tripping through a sentence here and there. It’s a constant occurrence that can feel overwhelming and embarrassing.
“Stuttering occurs when the flow of speech production becomes halted, or when a small part of speech (like a sound or syllable) is repeated multiple times,” explains Klaas Bakker, MD, PhD, a speech pathologist and professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Missouri State University. “The speaker has a sense that the speech system is out of control. When this happens, the speaker is often concerned and frustrated, while afterward there is embarrassment or guilt.”
While stuttering can be problematic for those afflicted with the disorder, there are a number of famous folks who prove it can be overcome. You may not personally stammer, but these are highly common speaking habits we have, according to science.
Former vice president Joe Biden has been vocal about being ashamed by his stutter throughout elementary school, addressing that time of his life in his memoir Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. In the book, he admits he didn’t receive formal therapy to overcome stuttering; instead, Biden took matters into his own hands. The politician recalls reciting poetry in front of a mirror, carefully watching the facial expressions that can be a companion to stuttering. Bakker explains why Biden’s approach works. “Learning how to have a more ‘matter of fact’ understanding of what happens during stuttering, and trying to produce speech slightly more deliberately but fluently helps a speaker to gain control over it,” he says.
The Academy Award-winning actress delivers her lines so passionately that you’ll likely be surprised to learn that Roberts stuttered. According to The Stuttering Foundation, Roberts was affected by the disorder as a child. Her older brother, actor Eric Roberts, also had to overcome a stutter. There isn’t a proven cause for stuttering, but Dr.Bakker says researchers are currently looking at the possibility of genetic predispositions as stuttering tends to run in families. If you’re curious about genetics, these are 12 things your mother’s health says about you.
Mary Poppins Returns star Emily Blunt grew up with a stutter so severe she was initially misdiagnosed. In an interview with NPR, the actress admits doctors thought she was just an overly tense child. To overcome her stutter, a grade school teacher suggested she try out for the school play because he noticed that whenever she did an impression or tried a different accent, the stutter would disappear. It worked: “[It was] just extraordinary that somebody who is not a stutterer would have the kind of insight to say: Be somebody else. Remove yourself from yourself and try it,” Blunt told NPR.
This idea is similar to another theory researchers have on stuttering. “There is a possibility that the brains of individuals who stutter are different in certain ways, or are used in a different way,” says Dr. Bakker. What’s more, he says, brain scans of people who have overcome stuttering indicate that their brains behave similarly to people who don’t stutter. “So one possibility is that brains may normalize with successful treatment, or when stuttering goes away by itself,” says Dr. Bakker.
Samuel L. Jackson
Cool, confident, and collected on the big screen, actor Samuel L. Jackson admits he suffered from a stutter as a kid, to the point where he barely spoke for a year of his childhood because he was so haunted by the disorder. In an interview on The Howard Stern Show, Jackson said breathing exercises helped him overcome the condition, as well as cursing (a signature trait of some of his movie characters). Dr. Bakker says the majority of children who stutter stop by the time they reach their teenage years. “Speech pathologists call this ‘spontaneous recovery,'” he says. Although much research is still being done in regards to why one stutters, you might be interested in these brain facts that will figuratively blow your mind.
In a 1960 interview, screen siren Marilyn Monroe discussed her childhood stutter. “First time was at the orphanage, and then later in my teens I stuttered,” she said. “And I was elected secretary of the minutes of the English class. Then I’d say, [to announce] the minutes of the last meeting, I’d gom-m-m-m-m… Oh, it’s terrible.” To combat the disorder, a speech therapist reportedly told Monroe to adopt her signature breathy voice.
PGA player Tiger Woods was working to overcome his stutter at the same time he was perfecting his golf swing. “I know what it’s like to be different and to sometimes not fit in,” Woods wrote in a letter, published in Golf Digest, to a young fan who was being bullied for his stutter. “I also stuttered as a child and I would talk to my dog and he would sit there and listen until he fell asleep. I also took a class for two years to help me, and I finally learned to stop.”
As a mentor on Project Runway, Tim Gunn was the definition of refinement and style. But he, too, struggled with a stutter early in life. “The worst moment ever—ever—was in the sixth grade,” he told NPR. “I had to do a report on the Louisiana Purchase, and I couldn’t get ‘Louisiana’ out of my mouth. I went over and over, and I ran out of the classroom crying and ran home.” Terrified to speak in front of a group? This is what your fears reveal about your personality.
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill notoriously suffered from a stutter, according to The International Churchill Society. They report he used pronunciation exercises to overcome the disability, like repeating phrases such as, “The Spanish ships I cannot see for they are not in sight.” This particular line was useful for Churchill who had difficulties saying the letter “s.”
One of the celebrities The Stuttering Foundation records as having battled a stutter is The King himself, Elvis Presley. He reportedly had the most difficulty with words that begin with “w” or “i.” He talked about struggling with his stutter even as an adult, though you wouldn’t know it from his singing. “A speech-language pathologist is able to teach fluency strategies to reduce stutters in verbal speech,” says Cristina Getz, a licensed speech-language pathologist. “These strategies may involve breathing techniques, stretching out words when necessary, and reducing the overall rate of speech. This may be why some people claim that their stutter stops when they sing, as they are, in fact, using their strategies!”
While being honored by the American Institute for Stuttering, actor Bruce Willis recalled the first time he recognized he had a stutter at the age of 6 years old. Much like his acting peer Emily Blunt, Willis says he realized he could have some control over his stutter when he was in character while acting, which he pursued at both school and a nearby YMCA. He might play a tough guy on screen, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t devastated by taunts from other children throughout school—something kids and even adults with a stutter have to endure. “When people who stutter experience negative interactions like bullying and teasing about their stutter, it may lead to being shy or embarrassed to speak out loud,” says Getz. “This can their speech negatively.”
Painfully shy as a child (and still a self-proclaimed introvert to this day), Nicole Kidman recalls having a stammer as a young girl. Eventually, she outgrew stuttering and has been able to speak fluently as an adult. “Individuals who have a fluency disorder face a lot of challenges and work hard to overcome them,” says Getz. “One of the best things someone can do for a person who stutters is to treat them like everyone else. Everyone has things that make them different—just be patient, and be kind!”
Musician Ed Sheeran is known for his beautiful melodies and lyrics, but behind the voice you hear on the radio is a person who suffered from a severe stutter as a child. In a speech for the American Institute for Stuttering, Sheeran says he tried different speech therapies and even some homeopathic remedies. But it wasn’t until his father bought him an Eminem CD that he really overcame the disorder. “I learned every word of it back to front by the age of ten, and he (Eminem) raps very fast and very melodically, and very percussively, and it helped me get rid of the stutter,” he says. Rap may not be your thing, but there are incredible health benefits of all types of music to be had.
James Earl Jones
Yes, even the voice of Darth Vader had to overcome stuttering. “I didn’t want to talk—bad enough that I just gave up,” James Earl Jones tells NPR. “I couldn’t introduce myself to people who visited the house, and it was too painful.” The actor admits he was never “cured” per se, but he has learned to work with the condition over time.
- The Stuttering Foundation: "Stuttering Facts and Information,"
- Klaas Bakker, MD, PhD, a speech pathologist and professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Missouri State University
- Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, Joe Biden, 2008, Random House
- The Stuttering Foundation: "Eric and Julia Roberts Share Many Things -- Including Stuttering"
- NPR: "Desperate to Speak: How Emily Blunt Found Her Voice"
- GQ: "How Samuel L. Jackson Cured His Stutter: Cursing"
- YouTube: Marilyn Monroe Interview, "I Just Stuttered"
- PGA: "Tiger Woods writes encouraging letter to boy with stuttering problem"
- NPR: "From Trembling Teacher to Seasoned Mentor: How Tim Gunn Made It Work"
- The International Churchill Society: "Churchill's Speech Impediment Was Stuttering"
- Cristina Getz, M.S.Ed., CCC-SLP, a licensed speech-language pathologist in Columbus, OH
- The Hollywood Reporter: "Bruce Willis Gets Emotional in Speech on Stuttering: Never Let Anyone Make You Feel Like an Outcast"
- The Stuttering Foundation: Nicole Kidman
- Time: "Ed Sheeran to Kids Who Stutter: Embrace Your Weirdness"