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Movie characters with a stammer usually provide comic relief, and their speech difficulties indicate the character is not to be taken seriously. Michael Palin's character, Ken, in A Fish Called Wanda is a classic example. Ken is unable to complete the tasks given to him by the leader of his gang, his stutter is so bad he is nearly unintelligible, and near the end of the film, he is mocked by Kevin Kline with the line: "It's K-k-ken coming to k-k-kill me." The 2010 Oscar contender The King's Speech takes a decidedly different approach, depicting the story of a historical figure and his long-term struggle with stammering.
Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee Colin Firth plays King George VI of England, who was crowned in 1936 after his older brother renounced the throne to marry an American divorcee. George VI—known to his family as "Bertie"—had a stammer from about age five, and had sought treatment for it from several speech therapists. The film focuses on his work with an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush), who had a great deal of success in improving Bertie's speech. Logue's treatment plan included speaking while listening to music on headphones, doing breathing exercises, and shouting expletives to get words flowing. Bertie was reluctant to take the throne and initially hesitant to participate in Logue's therapy; his wife Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter) encouraged him in both endeavors. Logue's success in treating the king is tested in 1939 when England enters the war with Germany and the king must address the nation via radio. To make Bertie more comfortable during the address, Logue constructs a "tent" about the size of a telephone booth out of blankets. With Logue at his side, the king makes the speech, and his slow delivery with long pauses is seen as appropriate to the serious nature of the address. Their relationship continued throughout the war and beyond, with the king awarding Logue the Royal Victorian Order for service to the crown.
King George VI battling the echoes and his stuttering at Wembley Stadium in The King's Speech.
The cause of stammering is not well established, though it appears to have a genetic component, as about 60% of those who stammer have a close relative who does as well. Stammering (or stuttering) affects about 1% of the adult population, and about 5% of children deal with a stutter for six months or more. Childhood stress also appears to play a role, and in Bertie's case, the fact that he was not allowed to follow his natural tendency to be left-handed may have caused some of that stress. Neurophysiology may hold a clue, as those who stutter process language differently from those who do not, and it is notable that boys are much more likely to stutter than girls. Logue gained experience in treating speech disorders while working with veterans of the First World War. Stuttering was a known symptom of what was then known as "shell shock." The modern diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) describes a similar condition. Those with severe PTSD sometimes exhibit stuttering as a symptom, though the link between emotional stress and stuttering is not clear. The Stuttering Foundation argues against emotional stress as a cause, though it also cites childhood family dynamics as a contributing factor. The brain's ability to process sounds may be involved in stuttering, since one treatment that often succeeds is to alter the way a stutterer hears his or her own voice. Visit www.stutteringhelp.org for more facts and figures on the topic.
The first time we see stuttering's toll on Bertie is when he tries to give a speech at London's Wembley Stadium in 1925. His amplified voice rings out across the crowd, and as the echoes return, his stutter brings the speech to a halt, and he is unable to continue. Physics and physical science teachers could use this scene to introduce several concepts about the physics of sound. Sound is a vibration in a physical material (solid, liquid, or gas) that involves the alternate compression and extension of that material. The rate of that compression and extension is the frequency of the sound, with high frequency corresponding to high pitch. The amount the material moves is called the amplitude, which correlates to sound energy and volume. (Our ears actually perceive loudness as a combination of amplitude and pitch.) Since sound is a wave phenomenon, reflection, refraction, and interference all can happen with sound. When you hear an echo, you are hearing sound reflected back to you from a relatively flat, uniform surface. Though sound travels through air very quickly (about 350 meters per second) in a large space, the travel time is noticeable, so the echo can be heard significantly after the initial sound. There is a clever, inexpensive way to have students roughly measure the speed of sound, which takes advantage of echoes. I found a good version of the lab online. The speed of sound is noticeable in other situations: The pause between seeing lightning and hearing thunder is caused by the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound. Track and field athletes may have noticed the delay between seeing the smoke leave a starter's pistol and hearing the sound if they are far away from the starting line.
Finally, microphones feature prominently in the film, as Bertie is asked to give speeches before large crowds and for the radio. Simply looking at the microphone makes Bertie nervous, and sets off his stammer. A lot of good physics is involved in understanding how microphones work. Microphones take sound energy (the kinetic energy of air moving when sound waves propagate) and convert it into electrical signals that can be amplified or transmitted. One common way to make this conversion is for the sound waves to cause a tiny magnet to move inside a coil of wire. The moving magnet induces a changing current in the coil, which can then be amplified and sent through wires to a radio transmitter, speakers, or a recording device. Microphones and speakers can be thought of as "inverse" devices, since speakers convert electrical signals into sound energy. Some devices (like older intercom systems) use the same magnet, coil, and paper cone as both speaker and microphone.
Elementary and middle school teachers should check out the resources on stuttering available online, and physical science teachers could use scenes in The King's Speech to introduce the physics of sound.
Note: The King's Speech is rated R for strong language. Teachers should review their school's policies about showing segments of R-rated films before using this movie in their classroom.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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