Stammering in a foreign land

Grant Meredith | 14.04.2014

Lecturer Grant Meredith shares his experiences of teaching in China and explains how his stammer wasn’t as big a barrier as he feared.

Grant in front of powerpoint slide, talking about stuttering.In 2012 I was invited to lecture a course on effective communication skills, team work and oral presentations in China as part of a partnership commitment with my own university in Australia (University of Ballarat). What followed was an eye-opening adventure in terms of fluency, respect and the use of a Western teaching method. At first I was a little apprehensive in accepting the offer. It would mean nearly a month away from my family and I only knew one phrase in Mandarin. I was also unsure about how they would accept my overt and at times very severe stammer.

So off I travelled to tropical Shaoguan University in Guangdong province. Upon arrival I was greeted by my minder and I found that I had to slow my speech rate down to half my normal speed for him to understand what I was saying. I spoke too fast and my accent was very thick. This was a challenge in itself because I’m usually a very fast talker. Slowing down certainly smoothed my speech out and I found myself stammering less. The next challenge was communicating with my new students. After settling in I was introduced to the academic hierarchy who were all very interested in my thoughts and teaching methods. The next day I would meet my students from amongst the 25,000 who lived on campus. I was also told that I would stick out, being the only ‘white person’ there.

Cultural differences

The next day came and I entered the lecture hall. In front of me was a class full of focused students. They had all learnt English during their school years but still their conversational skills were very mixed. After teaching for three hours I asked them for some feedback concerning how well they understood me. Now, I was stammering overtly, loud and proud the whole time, but to my surprise it was not an issue. Most students said they had never spoken to a native English speaker and were having trouble understanding my accent. My accent was too heavy for them but my stammer didn’t raise a mention. These students had grown up in a very respectful society where lecturers are seen in very high regard. The physical characteristics of how I spoke didn’t bother them at all. Not a single one stared, laughed or even seemed to acknowledge it.

It took the students a full week of daily classes with me to be able to understand most of what I was saying. Surprisingly they were finding it more difficult to get used to my Western teaching style. They were confused why I smiled as I taught and at how animated I was. They were also taken aback when I asked them questions. Usually a Chinese lecturer would not ask the class questions or interact so openly with them. It was so interesting to live and teach in such a respectful culture where my stammering was not an issue.

I received a standing ovation and some remarked that it was like meeting Steve Jobs!

Another challenge was learning how to toast. Often I would be asked out to dinner by members of the university hierarchy. These dinners were amusing because most of the time there was no interpreter and the hosts spoke little, if no English. In that case my hosts would interact fully with each other and I would smile and eat. However, the problem came when I was required to toast individuals and the table. Early on I was told that I should toast everyone to my right-hand side at least once every meal. I am still unsure if that was in fact custom or simply a ploy to get me drunk. The problem I found was not conducting the toast but trying to think of something different to say each time. At some meals I gave more than 10 toasts and I found myself getting very good at it and using phrases that would make a politician proud.

The big one

My final big challenge was conducting a public lecture to the university about research that I had been working on. Invitations were sent out to all interested parties and on the night I was treated like a star. I entered the auditorium and was greeted by a crowd of over 400 applauding staff and students, all of whom had voluntarily come to hear my speech. I was ushered to the stage and asked to sit down at a table with a microphone on it. I said, “Sit down? I don’t know how to lecture sitting down!” So I stood up, walked around, smiled and even showed a little humour as I presented. All along I was stammering, grimacing and blocking uncontrollably, but with confidence. I received a standing ovation and some remarked that it was like meeting Steve Jobs! I was swamped afterwards by people wanting their photograph taken with me.

A few weeks later it was time to fly back to Australia and back to my family. It was an amazing experience and it was such an embracing culture. I was blocking, prolonging and repeating the whole time and yet it was not a concern at all.

From Speaking Out Spring 2014, p.8

Group of students with Grant.