Fluency from imitation?

Has anyone explored the effect that when I block on a word, I can suddenly say the same word fluently if I hear another person say it? It almost seems like my brain has forgotten what that words sounds like, even though I know that’s not true.

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Fluency from imitation? — 16 Comments

  1. Hi Bruce,

    Do you mean when you say the word at the same time as the other person? If so, you’re describing the “choral speech” effect. Many PWS find that they are fluent when reading something in unison with another person. Although there were many studies conducted on this effect in the middle of the 20th century (see Bloodstein’s text book for an excellent summary), it is still unclear as to WHY this happens. It is fascinating, though, and seems to work for many PWS (myself included).


    • Thanks Paul, but not quite. When I’m blocking and I hear another person say that work it’s like a switch where I can suddenly say that word fluently. I have heard of the choral speech effect and I understand it may have some relationship with DAF devices, but not quite what I am talking about.

  2. Bruce, although personally I have not investigated the phenomena, “Fluency from Imitation” is a profound concept to be addressed on three levels:

    1) Scientific model building a la building weather prediction models. I will have to ask some of my Indian computer programmer clients to design a model to predict not only when stuttering will occur but also what form it will take. This is not such a far fetched idea because we already have a rough conceptual model in Joseph Sheehan’s Iceberg metaphor and Anne Smith’s volcano analogy. At least the above provide a first cut of the variables involved (as does my dissertation). Maybe what we would find is that the phenomena is based on either distractibility or belief and emotion disruption (see my paper at this conference).

    2) Practical “choral talking” app. We could try to build an app that mirrors the conditions in which artificial fluency can be induced by being able to call upon command the word which invokes anticipatory anxiety and, pre-empting a stutter. Before I recovered from stuttering I had a finite number of words such as my name, where I was born, etc. that gave me most of the trouble. So, if the concept proved effective with some ingenious insight we could have a selective word “choral talking” machine that helps us out at least until its effect wears off.

    3) Promotion of avoidance and stuttering anticipatory anxiety. Whereas I see great future in coming up with sophisticated computer simulation of stuttering as discussed in (1), I believe that the app in (2) is counter indicated if one chooses to truly recover from stuttering (for definition see my article), because it emphasizes the irrational belief that mere stutter is to be avoided at all costs and, thus, only builds up more anxiety and more frequent and severe stuttering state even if for the time being one can mask the external manifestation.
    Gunars K. Neiders, Psy.D., Ph.D.

    • Thanks Gunars, I agree that an app isn’t really a solution to stuttering…while it might avoid a stutter from happening, I don’t understand how it might be practically applied if such an app could be functionally realised, because it doesn’t address underlying issues related to stuttering, as you suggest in your point 3. But interesting to read about the idea of a prediction model…such a model might be useful in the development of future treatment, thanks!

  3. Hi Bruce,
    As Paul pointed out, it is important to clarify whether you meant saying the word at the same time as the other person, or you saying it fluently after they have said it. If you say it fluently after someone else says it, my guess is that it might have something to do with the reduced propositionality of the word at that point. Before someone said the word, the burden was completely on you to produce it in order to convey your message. But, if someone says it first, or completes the word for you, it might reduce the propositional language demand that could have an effect on fluency. The less propositional the language, generally the more fluent we become as people who stutter. This is just my speculation, but makes sense to me from what I know about the interaction between language and social elements of stuttering.

    • Thanks Michael, yes, I was meaning ‘saying it fluently after they have said it’. Could there be some relationship with the choral effect that Paul mentioned initially? I appreciate your explanation about reduced propositionality and that sounds like a possible explanation but I need to do more reading to understand a little better. Thanks for taking the time to respond!

  4. I agree with Michael, reduced propositionality is a plausible explanation; Bloodstein did much writing on this concept. His “communicative pressure” hypothesis for many “fluency enhancing conditions” would definitely apply to this phenomenon, as well as to choral speech. Bloodstein, in fact, studies about 115 such FECs for his doctoral dissertation!


  5. There is another possible explanation in current neuroscience. The mirror neuron system activates when an external stimulus does something the human body can do. In other words, if you watch someone handle a tool, part of your motor system that enables hand movement is activated. Although this is not my area, it is conceivable that hearing/watching another person vocalize can provide just enough “oomph” to get your own system moving. People have tried to use this phenomenon to explain why some people have better fluency while practicing in front of a mirror and both choral reading and altered auditory feedback effects on stuttering. Joe Kalinowski has done some of this work for stuttering. The mirror neuron system has been investigated in a number of disorders to explain things that help or interfere with normal function. Cheers from a very soggy DC/Maryland.

    • Thanks Nan, how you have explained this sounds like what I imagined might be the problem. While I know what to say, I can’t say it. While I think I know how to say it, I can’t move past the block. But as soon as someone else vocalises that word it’s like a mist lifting and I’m not blocking (on that word) any more. I hope your weather picks up, it’s been a hot sunny weekend in Sydney, a little too hot at 37 Celsius/98 Fahrenheit.

    • Great question and interesting discussion.

      The mirror neuron hypothesis is probably too loosely defined to be very useful in most fields of research in that it does not add much by using the term, especially for speech (see e.g. Cook, R., Bird, G., Catmur, C., Press, C., Heyes, C. Mirror neurons: From origin to function. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 37(02), 2014, 177-192; Hickok, G. “The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition.” W. W. Norton & Company, 2014). Probably we should be more analytic to be sure that we are talking about the same thing.

      You have to remember that speech system is not a single solid entity but a compound collection of semi-independent subsystems working seemingly together. It is known from numerous aphasia studies that oral repeating of heard words could be mediated by an independent system than the other major language functions, as in mixed transcortical aphasia in which repetition is much more preserved than comprehension or spontaneous production of speech. I believe that this system could be helping those who repeat fluently the words that they otherwise stutter on.

      Individual psychology or belief also affects the effect (or fluency) of repetition. For some, repetition could have an effect of elevating the probability of fluency rather than reliably bringing fluency. For some others who firmly believe that difficult words are difficult words, this system may not be utilized effectively. The belief on the other direction that they never stutter on repetition, results in never stuttering on repetition because they do not try to “control” or manipulate their speech in an unnatural way (or consciously) thanks to their belief, and they can utilize the repetition circuit in the brain without interfering it. The psychological effect can be analogized to that for the fluency during self-speech (monologue without spectators). Some do stutter during monologues when they try to control their speech consciously.

      Thus, no mirror neuron hypothesis is necessary for explaining the fluency during repetition, though it may also be involved if there is one for speech. However, the mirror neuron hypothesis does not promote us to any closer to the understanding of the exact mechanisms of stuttering or reduction thereof. It just replaces one mystery (stuttering) with another black-box, IMHO.
      Hope this helps resolve some of the too much hype on mirror neurons.

      Koichi at NRCD, Japan

      • I do see your point, but I’m not sure I would refer to mirror neurons as a “black box” model. The MNS research began, as I understand it, with studies measuring the neuronal activity on the motor cortices of monkeys. When the monkey engaged in a specific motor behavior (e.g., reaching for an object), activity in a certain region of the motor cortex was detected via the electrode. However, when the monkey merely saw the researcher producing that same movement, the same neurons fired!

        So, there is physiological evidence for some sort of perception-production link at the cortical level, at least in monkeys 🙂 But, I agree, how exactly this contributes to various aspects of stuttering is still unclear. I do think it is worth investigating, although probably more difficult to measure in humans using the same methodology.


  6. Absolutely, another plausible hypothesis. Mirror neurons are being used to explain many things, including charitable giving (according to a colleague of mine in political science). Joe K. and Tim S. wrote an excellent book several years ago, which mirror neurons and stuttering in great detail.

  7. Yes, Kalinowski & Saltuklaroglu did write about this. Saltuklaroglu, et al, (2004) stated that to create fluent productions in therapy, external speech signals (such as choral reading or DAF) often are used to directly cause sensory changes. Or, altering the manner of speech production (such as whispering, vowel prolongation, or easy onset) can be used to indirectly cause sensory changes. When altered speech production is used in therapy, stuttering often reappears when naturalness is re-introduced in therapy. This occurs because the mirror neuron system is not activated and speech is not initiated. The authors suggest that use of a DAF device, which creates an external speech signal and a sensory change, could be combined with more natural-like altered speech production to cause a sensory change for fluent speech. DAF works as long as there are auditory signals.
    Blocks often occur upon initiation of speech because of the absence of auditory signals (or sensory change). There is evidence that easy onset and vowel prolongation, both more natural-like speech alterations, may address some types of blocks during onset of speech. Due to the sensory changes, the MNS should engage and activate the speech mechanism. Hopefully this isn’t taking the thread discussion in a different direction! Signing off from Central Arkansas!

    (Saltuklaroglu, et al, 2004)

  8. Bruce, the others have offered a number of good explanations. You might want to look up some of Joseph Sheehan’s ideas on exactly this phenomenon. Joe wrote the rather nonsensical assertion (as regarded by most nonstutterers) that “Stuttering is followed by fluency, and fluency is followed by stuttering.” He explained it within the “approach-avoidance” paradigm that he developed from previous work with rats. A bit akin to Michael’s thoughts about propositionality, the idea is that once one stutters, the avoidance gradient drops dramatically and the approach gradient is strong. But then, as more and more fluency is achieved, the avoidance gradient begins to build again (much like “waiting for the other shoe to drop”). When the avoidance gradient surpasses the approach gradient, stuttering occurs and the entire process starts again.

    No one has mentioned that it was precisely the fluent following stuttered word phenomenon that motivated Van Riper to develop his cancellation strategy as the first of three voluntary control techniques (cancellation, pull-out, and preparatory set). He was very careful not to have stutterers immediately say a word again after they had just stuttered on it, but he used this mysterious fluency-enhancing situation as the best place to start to gain some voluntary control over the otherwise involuntary struggle associated with stuttering.


  9. Very interesting question and discussion, thank you for asking Bruce. I agree with all responses above, especially regarding the propositionality and the mirror neuron theory. In addition to those, Ahm (2004) does an excellent review of the possibility of the role of the basal ganglia thalamocortical loop in stuttering. He discusses it in terms of rhythm and timing, and the fact that it appears external timing cues activate the lateral pre-motor cortex and cerebellar system (internal cues utilize the supplementary motor area and basal ganglia control circuit). That appears to be another plausible explanation of your experience of being able to say the word fluently when you hear someone else say it. Would love for others to chime in and share their thoughts as well!