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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, my 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

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