Conquering Speech Impediments

By Leonard Jacobs

Whether it's losing a lisp, conquering a stutter, or mastering or losing an accent, the role of the speech therapist continues to be vital to the entertainment industry. And while the public may not be aware of it, there is a long list of actors who have overcome various impediments, from James Earl Jones' stutter to Julia Roberts' southern drawl.

Sam Chwat, who has logged more than two decades as a speech therapist, is an unquestioned authority on the subject of speech impediments and how to eliminate them. He says the first thing to understand is that the "interconnecting speech and hearing mechanism is a very delicate system. Damage or impediments in any one part of the system will affect the rest of the system." Chwat founded New York Speech Improvement Services in 1982, and as head of the nation's largest company of licensed speech therapists, helps to handle over 200 clients a week. They can diagnose and treat everything from hearing impairment, stuttering, and cleft palate to learning disabilities, vocal disorders, and "anything that could impact on the communicative ability of a person."

Yet the first step, Chwat says, is to acknowledge the impediment and then to tackle it head on.

"Every actor should have a good physical exam and, at least once in his or her lifetime, have a hearing exam, just to rule out any problem affecting speech." For seasoned actors in particular, he recommends seeing a speech therapist "whenever they become aware of sudden vocal changes—a sudden rasp in their voice, a loss of voice, or a chronic hoarseness that cannot be otherwise explained by a cold."

Impending Impediments

Of all the speech impediments and challenges that Chwat sees in his practice, three are most common: issues with the letter "s," stuttering, and the process of "accent acquisition and elimination."

In the "s" case, he says it isn't always just a lisp that must be dealt with. When older actors "lose their hearing, they lose it in the upper frequency, and that affects their ability to monitor high frequency sounds, which is what the 's' sound is. At best, you might come out with a lisp; at worst, you might not even make the 's' sound."

For actors in general, Chwat finds a variety of impediments around the letter "s," but he is careful to dispel the myth surrounding the "sibilant 's' ": "The notion of the sibilant 's' is a misnomer. It's usually a distortion of the sound, or a substitution of one sound for the other, or some alteration in the frequency of the 's' so it's either absent entirely from speech or just wrong, like when it's replaced by a 'th.' And some people make 's' sounds that should be 'z's."

Indeed, according to Chwat, "the 'z' sound comes up three or four more times in English than the 's' sound—words like tables, chairs, eyes, nose, and ears. Many people—especially women—tend to substitute a true 's' for a 'z.' There are also those with an 'interdental lisp'—where an 's' gets formed between the teeth, so you get 'tho' instead of 'so.' Finally, there are some who speak with excessive nasality, like Fran Drescher. You treat them to redirect their voice so it comes more from the chest, then you also help relax the larynx so you get a wider range of pitch."

Stuttering, however, "is a longer-term issue. Boys around three usually develop it (if they're going to), and far more boys than girls in fact develop it." He says that there are four "classic symptoms of stuttering, including prolongation, where someone sits on the same sound, in any part of a word; repetition, where someone repeats part of a word; block, which is a total cessation of speech, where the face seems to go into a spasm and the person has an evident struggle to get the word out; and circumlocution, which is a phobic response to a word, where the stutterer tags a particular word because it must be avoided." It's this last symptom that Chwat finds most curious.

"Lots of actors suffer from speech anxiety, which can lead to stuttering and blocks. We also encounter learning disabilities, particularly where the actor has a specific problem—he can't read and understand and process the differences between sounds." That dilemma is tied somewhat to the "process of accent elimination and acquisition—the ability to hear the differences in sounds and to self-scan speech so [actors] know which sounds they have to replace."

Treatment, of course, varies from client to client. Among the pathways are "different kinds of breathing techniques, self-distraction techniques, and certain speech-pacing strategies." He also likes to stress "a lot of drill work and motor memory work, so you learn how to work in the right sounds and link them to the mouth."

An Actor's Perspective

As long as Chwat has been practicing—25 years—is about as long as it's been since Paul Haber recognized that he possessed a lisp and began working to get rid of it. An Equity actor living both in New York (where he books legit and industrials) and Los Angeles (where he freelances as a casting director), Haber first discovered his lisp at 14 by hearing himself "on a tape recorder—and it was this horrible lisping sound. I almost keeled over. I mean, I didn't know. The next day, I went to a guidance counselor and said I knew there was a speech therapist in my school and wanted to go."

Basically, he says, "I didn't know where to put my tongue." After a few months, he thought he had successfully dealt with the problem. But conquering a speech impediment, he soon learned, is a long process, something that one must truly apply oneself to. For example, "Cut to when I went off to school—to the Goodman School of Drama," Haber says. "Here I am, thinking I'd gotten rid of my lisp, and not only did they tell me that I 'needed to get rid of that flat Connecticut accent,' but that I still had 'something of a lisp'—my 's's weren't as sharp as they should have been."

Fortunately, his speech therapist at the Goodman "was just relentless, and I have to say that becoming an actor was probably the thing that saved me, in terms of ridding myself of that lisp." He vividly recalls his therapist "pulling out a straw and showing me where to put the tip of my tongue. It seemed so obvious to everyone who does it correctly, but it wasn't for me." The profit in the experience, aside from developing perfect diction, has been in the boost it gave to his career—Haber earns a living not just as a stage and screen actor, but from frequent voice-over work as well.

The point, he says, is that "how we speak is a habit, and the idea is you have to replace one habit—which maybe was all you ever knew growing up—with a new and improved habit, and that takes an awful lot of work." Ultimately, though, "speaking becomes like kinesthetic memory—like working any other muscle." Once that's accomplished, he says, "It becomes a part of you—something you don't even have to think about anymore."