Student overcomes speech impediment with…accent?

Tristan+Roeder+sits+in+the+library+on+Tuesday%2C+Sept.+15.+Roeder+speaks+in+an+English+accent+to+cope+with+his+speech+impediment.+%28The+Daily+Iowan%2FRachael+Westergard%29

Tristan Roeder sits in the library on Tuesday, Sept. 15. Roeder speaks in an English accent to cope with his speech impediment. (The Daily Iowan/Rachael Westergard)

By James Hirsch
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Tristan Roeder has lived in Iowa City for much of his life — yet this young American speaks with an English accent.

The reason?

“I have a stutter, which makes it so I can’t say certain words as fast as I would like it, and I have some difficulty pronouncing six letters of the alphabet,” the University of Iowa freshman said. “At least I did. Right now I can’t say ‘r.’ Still, it’s way better than it was last year — trust me.”

According to the National Stuttering Association, 3 million people in the U.S. live with the effects of stuttering. Roeder is one of them.

And he points to a pop-culture icon as the reason he is finally able to overcome the stutter. Roeder refers to Harry Potter as the greatest bane and joy of his existence. As a child, he shared a room with his younger brother, who would play Harry Potter audiotapes every night to fall asleep.

“I just kind of picked up on it because I was a little kid and I noticed that the more I spoke in an English accent, the better I could be understood and the faster I could talk,” Roeder said. “It’s the only thing that worked.”

Patricia Zebrowski, a UI professor of communication sciences and disorders who specializes in the nature and treatment of stuttering, said whenever people who stutter change the way they use their system of speaking, scientists consistently observe a phenomenon in which the person may temporarily have fluent speech.

“They will exhibit spontaneous fluency when they are doing that,” Zebrowski said. “The lasting effects of that … are probably not robust. They’re only going to be fluent in that moment.”

Roeder said speaking in an English accent has definitely made more life more interesting, especially when using it as an icebreaker. He said he even managed to persuade someone in elementary school that he was an extra in a Harry Potter movie.

Prior to that, he said, just possessing the speech impediment made different aspects of his life hard.

“The impediment made my life a living hell for a few years,” Roeder said. “Not being able to communicate and being made fun of for it because you’re different — that was extremely complicating.”

Roeder’s older brother grew out of a speech impediment, and his younger brother still has a slight one. “The first time we open our mouths, people start making judgments about us,” their mother said. “Even with that first sentence, the listener would have an impression that you had a speech impairment or that you had an intriguing accent. If you had the choice, which one would you want?”

When meeting new people, Roeder said, he often gets asked where he is from.

“My rule is if I’m going to meet someone just once, I just go ahead and say England because it’s easier, it makes their day more exciting and — let’s be honest — it’s fun as hell,” Roeder said.

Zebrowski said speech pathologists do not typically suggest taking on an accent or dialect for treatment because it does not have long-term results. However, she said, it can still help individuals as a form of self-treatment.

“People discover this method on their own and often use it because they realize that when they do this it’s easier for them to talk,” Zebrowski said. “But that’s a big commitment, right, to always speak as though you’re from another country.”

For long-term results, Zebrowski said a speech pathologist would help people focus on how to make changes to the way they talk and produce speech in their own voice. She said cognitive work is also important so people can cope psychologically with their difficulty talking.

“One approach is we teach people to use strategies like decreasing muscle tension and … stretching vowels a bit so that they can produce what we would call controlled fluency,” Zebrowski said. “Another approach is to actually become physically aware of when you are stuttering and changing that moment, releasing tension so that you can move smoothly through.”

Roeder, who studies theater and education at the UI, said his years spent in speech therapy are actually giving him the upper hand because he understands the mechanics of speaking better.

“It’s definitely given me an appreciation for how speech works, which is why I really love theater and movies in general now,” he said. “I appreciate how hard it is to say those words in the way that you want them to be.”

An earlier version of a photo cutline incorrectly named the subject as Tristan Copes. He is Tristan Roeder. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said Roeder has lived in Iowa City his entire life. Roeder has lived in Iowa City for seven years.  The DI regrets the error. 

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