The Passive Airflow Technique

Light a candle and place it in front of the child’s mouth. The child must breathe in and calmly let some of the air flow from his lips so that the candle flickers just a bit. Then he must begin to speak, softly and slowly. ---

(Traditional Japanese folk remedy for stuttering children, quoted by Schwartz and Carter, Stop stuttering)

As mentioned in previous chapters stuttering is, according to Prof Schwartz, caused by a 'locking' of the vocal cords due to tension. The vocal cords are an important link in the chain tension-laryngospasm-struggle behaviour (stuttering). In the past, therapists tended to focus only on the first and third link: tension and struggle behaviour. This resulted in a two-pronged attack: the attempted control of tension as well as of the struggle behaviour, with the emphasis falling on the latter.

Tension control, which included psychological treatment, did alleviate the problem to some extent. However, the treatment of the struggle behaviour was not particularly successful since the second link, the laryngospasm, had not been identified. Treating the struggle behaviour amounted to treating the last phase of a well-established, conditioned reflex. But it was too late to neutralise this reflex; it had already become automatic and programmed.

We now know that we should focus our attack on the laryngospasm rather than the struggle behaviour – we have to prevent the locking of the vocal cords due to tension. Prof Schwartz developed the Passive Airflow Technique with this purpose in mind. Strictly speaking it combines several techniques.

The individuals studied by Schwartz prior to developing his technique included people who had outgrown their stuttering while young. According to him these children had unconsciously learned and applied some type of 'airflow technique'.

Schwartz does not claim that his therapy is completely ‘new’. Elements of his technique have been applied by the Japanese for centuries, as indicated by the quotation introducing this chapter. And some therapists mentioned a spasm in the vocal cords as early as the nineteenth century. They advised stutterers to speak while exhaling, and to sigh passively. Schwartz used current knowledge about stuttering and stress to elaborate on and systematise the ideas of these older authorities.

Airflow is a fluency technique to prevent the laryngospasm and the accompanying stuttering reflex. This technique allows you to open and relax your vocal cords before speaking. In this way stuttering is prevented without having to cure it. It is not a miracle cure and must be acquired and practised. The idea is that by mastering the approach step by step, the stutterer will gradually learn to apply it even when exposed to stressful situations. Correct application of the technique not only prevents stuttering; it also prevents secondary struggle behaviour such as unnatural movements of the head, arms, etc., as the stuttering reflex is now addressed at its core.

The three components of the Passive Airflow Technique

1. Passive airflow

The first step is to activate the airflow. The stutterer learns to release a very slight, passive current of air from his mouth, almost like a sigh, immediately BEFORE speaking. This is aimed at opening the vocal cords prior to speech. As a result the possibility of a laryngospasm is reduced.

The airflow from the lips must be extremely passive, and not pushed or forced. The air should ‘drift’ and flow from the mouth. Hence the name airflow technique. It is NOT a stream of air; it should ‘evaporate’ from the mouth.

Note that the Passive Airflow Technique is not a breathing therapy. It is vocal cord therapy. Of course you have to breathe in to produce an airflow. But take care not to breathe in too deeply. That may produce a pushed flow.

2. Slowing down the first syllable

In addition it is necessary to slow down the first syllable of the first word of a sentence. If the first word has several syllables, at least the first two should be said at the slower rate. The aim is to reduce tension on the vocal cords. A high speaking tempo increases tension on the vocal cords and increases the possibility of laryngospasms.

If the first word has only one syllable, Prof Schwartz recommends prolonging it with a ‘mental comma’ following the word; with the rest of the sentence almost following as an afterthought. Say the first syllable as if it is the only syllable that has to be said.

If the first syllable of a sentence is slowed, the tendency will be to slow down the entire sentence, so further reducing vocal cord tension.

Remember: once you are into the sentence and your vocal cords vibrate (i.e. phonate), don’t interrupt the phonation – keep on talking. The laryngospasm will not easily occur if the vocal cords are in vibration, but it may occur when you have to initiate sound after phonation has stopped.

Stutterers tend to speak too fast. This fast speech is partly the cause and partly the result of their problem. Many stutterers want to have their say as quickly as possible. They feel that the sooner it’s out, the less chance of a block. In reality the exact opposite happens: the faster they speak, the higher the tension on the vocal cords. The stutterer has to learn to slow down his speech. SLOWER – BUT NOT TOO SLOW – SPEECH IS AN IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THE AIRFLOW APPROACH.

This ‘slowed first syllables’ approach is in some ways similar to the ‘slow speech’ approach well known in eg. British stuttering circles.

3. The ‘intent to rest’

Part of the function of the airflow method is to distract the speaker’s attention away from the feared word. It is thus also to some extent a distraction technique. To distract attention from the feared word, the brain must receive a new message. This new message is ‘rest’, or ‘relax’. In this way the brain is prevented from ‘thinking about tension’ when saying the word, the laryngospasm is not activated, the vocal cords remain open and the feared word can be said. This is the psychological aspect of the airflow component – its most difficult component, but effective where the stutterer suffers from severe word fear.

The intent to rest is a mental trick that can be learned. Your mouth and throat will always function according to your intent; and if you are intent on flowing, resting and slowing down the first syllables, your vocal cords will not contract.

PRACTISE the intent to rest by sitting in a comfortable chair and relaxing your entire body and mind while you allow the air to flow passively from your mouth. Empty your head of all thoughts as the air flows.

So let’s combine these three components as follows: You breathe in (but not too deeply). Then allow a very slight flow of air to pass through your lips as you ‘think rest’, relaxing your body and mind as much as possible. Then speak, slowing down the first syllable(s). This procedure can be represented as follows:

[Flow] ‘When, are you leaving? [Flow] Not, today. [Flow] On,ly on Thursday when the holiday starts. [Flow] I’ll, go by train.’

Speaking like this will require practice before it SOUNDS natural to the listener. It must also LOOK natural – don’t stare like a robot! Use a mirror to monitor your posture; move your hands, head and eyes freely and naturally. Take note of how others use body language when they speak, and imitate it.

In real life, practised airflowing creates the impression of a controlled speaker who thinks before he speaks – not an impulsive person, but relaxed and self-confident.

Low energy speech

Low energy speech is an additional aid for those days or situations when you are extremely tense. It is a style of speech that should be used only in emergencies, since it isn’t practical to use it all the time. It is also an aid for those stutterers with very high tension levels.

Low energy speech is SOFT, with MINIMAL MOVEMENT OF THE SPEECH ORGANS. Stutterers should practise it every day. Try to speak softly with minimal movement of the tongue and lips, but without becoming inaudible.

The reason for the effectiveness of low energy speech is that it exerts much less tension on the speech organs. It is a powerful weapon when combined with the airflow technique. This type of speech is related to the ‘light contacts’ approach taught by speech therapists.

Some stutterers tend to compensate for their poor speech by speaking too loudly. They want to ensure that the words they manage to say reach the listener.

Low tone of voice

Once again a low tone of voice is not an essential feature of the airflow technique – continuous use of a low tone of voice when speaking is unnatural and impractical. Nevertheless it can be very useful in emergencies, the reason being that the lower the tone of voice, the less the tension on the vocal cords.

Tone of voice may also serve as an important indication of base-level tension, as people tend to raise their tone when tense. Before making a telephone call, the speaker could for example practise his call by first recording it (eg. on his cell phone or a digital / analogue recorder). If the actual telephone conversation is also recorded and the recordings are compared, he will probably discover that his tone of voice was much higher during the actual telephone call. The reason would be his higher tension level during the actual call.

Variation in the need for technique

The airflow is obviously very demanding. Using it all the time requires a lot of effort on the speaker’s part. Though the ideal would be to use it as much as possible and to extend your use of it, in ‘real life’ it is not necessary to make full use of it – much will depend on the particular situation and one’s current base-level tension. Actual use of the technique may be represented as follows, with base-level tension abbreviated as BLT:

BLT = very low:     No technique needed

BLT = low:             Slowed first syllable OR passive

BLT = average:       Slowed first syllable AND
                                passive airflow

BLT = high:             Slowed first syllable AND
                                passive airflow, PLUS
                                intent to rest AND
                                low energy speech

Base-level tension and speech tension

In a previous chapter, base-level tension was described as the total sum of tension on the vocal cords when the person is not speaking and has no intention of doing so. Speech tension is the additional amount of tension that is required for speech. Speech tension is therefore always added to base-level tension. If a stutterer has a high base-level tension and then begins to speak, he is subjected to his combined base-level tension and speech tension. As a consequence he may exceed his threshold and stutter (see Figure 1 in the chapter 'A Possible Cause of Stuttering').

The effect of the Passive Airflow technique is limited to speech tension. When the technique is used correctly it reduces speech tension to the level of base-level tension – without however reducing base-level tension itself.

In theory this means that, with correct application of this vocal cord technique, you have a weapon that will allow you to speak fluently even with high base-level tension. According to Prof Schwartz, intensive training in proper vocal cord control makes fluent speech possible, even in stressful situations where the rest of your body is very tense. It is a fact that the principle of differential relaxation enables one part of the muscular system to relax while other parts remain active.

In real life, however, high base-level tension limits the margin within which the stutterer can apply his technique successfully. The higher the base-level tension, the more difficult it becomes to use the technique correctly.This illustrates the importance of combining the technique with stress control (for a lower base-level tension) and explains why the technique on its own sometimes fails in highly stressful situations. That’s why I’ve also included a chapter on stress management. First, however, let’s look at learning the airflow technique.



Anonymous said...

I wish you the best of health Mr. Leow. I am 24 years old and I've been stuttering since the age of 7 or 8. Mr.Schwartz's theory interests me and I believe my speech can be improved significantly by using the passive air flow technique and also by managing my stress level. I have a couple of questions regarding the air flow technique. Should I inhale using my nose or mouth or either? When I think 'rest', how to distract my mind from the fear of stuttering? My main problem is that almost everytime I anticipate speaking, there is a message in my brain saying "I will stutter". I really want to think otherwise but the thought is very reinforced.

I live in a small country where there are very few speech pathologists. I went to a couple but was in vain. Is it possible to overcome my stuttering on my own? I know it is a long process but I willing to do so.

Thank you for your time!

Peter Louw said...

Sorry for responding so late, my blog was configured incorrectly and I have only now read your message. 1) Nose or mouth inhalation - there's no fixed rule, but I prefer mouth inhalation as it makes you more aware of air flowing through your mouth, thereby promoting airflow out of the mouth 2) The 'think rest' component is the most difficult, but can be practised - there is an exercise in my book (in "Learning the technique") for practising it. If you focus on "I will stutter", it reflects high tension, so you should also try to work on lowering your stress levels. In this sense it's also an issue of "mind over matter". Instead of focusing on "stuttering", try to focus on "using technique". But, as I said, a negative focus on stuttering shows high stress. So you see that stress management is an important part of this approach. 3) Overcoming stuttering on you own is very difficult. You really need support such as self-help or support groups - check out my chapter on maintaining fluency later in the book. For a start, join an internet group such as the Stuttering Community (you can google them and join). Or google the Stuttering Homepage for lots of support options. All the best and good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hello, Mr. Louw. I read about a treatment in Praga for stutters, with Formoterol, wich is used for asmatic patients. What do you know about this? I am trying to help my eight years old son, we are from Colombia. God bless you. Thankyou.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I had some questions:
1.Do we need to part our lips while passing the air through our lip?

2.Do we need to say the first syllable in a prolonged way?

Peter Louw said...

To Anonymous from Colombia: I am sorry I am only responding now, but Blogger never informed me about your question. Unfortunately I have no knowledge about treatment with Formoterol; I suggest that you google this substance to see what it is. It is not generally known in the Western world as a medicine for stuttering; in fact, no medicine for stuttering exists in my knowledge. Some people, however, find some improvement through vitamin B1 or B Complex pills - for more information you can have a look at my Stuttersense blog which is linked to the first page of this online book. Remember that anything that reduces stress could help somewhat for stuttering. Also read the chapter on stuttering children. I am sorry that I cannot be of more help! Kind regards.

Peter Louw said...

You definitely have to part your lips to let the air flow out between your lips. In fact, always try to keep your lips in a slightly (not wide) open or loose position, even when not speaking, and always try to breathe out through the mouth even when not speaking. In this way the airflow technique will be easier to apply. But the airflow itself, when speaking, should be much more passive and slight than actually breathing out.

The first syllable should be slowed, but not prolonged because that would sound unnatural.

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