Tongue Tied in Audio-land

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Hi, I’m Neil Gardner and I’ve made a living for 30 years using my voice. From presenting radio shows around the UK and the world, to public speaking at industry events, to high-level negotiations, to giving speeches and presentations. And now I also narrate audiobooks (as well as, of course, running this company!) I’ve enjoyed a lifetime of speaking…probably too much, too often, too loudly for some people! I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to work in radio and audio, or a time when I ever feared using my voice in public. For my entire adult working life I have been paid to use my voice…and I am incredibly proud of it (wish it had paid a bit more, though!)

So would it surprise you to hear that up until the age of 2 my parents and doctors thought I might never speak? There was something clearly wrong with my vocal development, I simply wasn’t making the noises a small child should. Was I developmentally impaired? Was I deaf? It took a while (this was the mid-70s), but my parent’s perseverance finally led them to a diagnosis of ‘tongue-tied’. Tests showed I was actually 6 months ahead intellectually, but my tongue was tied.

My tongue was tied? What the heck does THAT mean? Take a look at this image:

Basically, I have a thin but strong piece of skin connecting the base of my mouth with the underside of my tongue. This restricts motion and means it is impossible to form certain shapes, and therefore, certain word and letter sounds. Modern doctors know to look for this at birth and can simply snip it, no problems, but for some reason, back then, the doctors didn’t catch it until I was already 2 years old. I don’t know why at that stage they couldn’t operate, but my mum tells me they couldn’t…c’est la vie.

So, time to step up SUPER PARENTS and get me the help I needed. Between the ages of 2 and 4 I visited a speech therapist at the stroke unit at Mayday Hospital in Croydon once a month. These are some of my earliest memories. My dad worked as an ambulanceman and so I recall sometimes being taken up or back in an ambulance driven by him, or his friend Charlie or one of the other ambulance drivers. I also recall a time when I was introduced to the knees of an incredibly tall man (it must have been 1978) who I was later told was Chewbacca. Well, those knees didn’t look like Wookiee knees to my 4 year old eyes. Of course, it was Peter Mayhew, who at the time worked at the hospital as a porter, I think.

Anyway, for a few years my mum would take me every month, and with the lady therapist I would learn to pronounce letters and words using a scrapbook system and lots of repetition. The problem was, the restricted range of movement of my tongue meant I simply couldn’t pronounce many things the usual way, and so the therapist, and my parents, had to patiently help me learn new and unique ways to pronounce words and letters. This required a lot of time and effort on my parents behalf…apparently each and every day they would spend at least an hour with me, going through the scrapbook and helping me learn these new pronunciation shapes…as I said, SUPER PARENTS. And bear in mind, we were a working class South London family, with a low income and long working hours, so for them to dedicate so much time and attention on me (sorry to my sister!) is something I can never adequately thank them for.

So, by the time I was 4 years old and starting school I could speak almost to the standard level. Apparently there were still some letters I had trouble pronouncing, but I had advanced enough to go to school and not stand out from the LEGO-loving crowd. Congrats and huzzahs to mum and dad and the therapist (and all the friends and family who helped!)

So, from then on it was pretty much schooling as normal, nothing untoward to deal with. Well, I couldn’t, and still can’t, roll my r’s, and the occasional English teacher would wonder why I formed certain words differently than other kids. But I wonder if those years of focused attention on words, sounds and letters is what drove me to a love of radio, speech and audio?

After 30 years working with my voice, I find myself wondering about how my life turned out. How things may have been very different if my parents hadn’t forced the issue back when I was two years old, and who I might have been had I not been allowed access to the NHS stroke unit speech therapist. But I also find it mildly amusing to think that starting with a speech impairment, and still coping today with the oddities my tongue has to go through to say certain things (and a secret desire to roll my r’s), I have made my living from being a ‘right gobby little so-and-so’ (as one former boss once called me). I like to think the end result is a beautiful combination of my Dad’s Londoner heritage, my Mum’s Irish ancestry, the power of the NHS (let’s not allow it to be taken from us!) and the inspiring genius of British radio and it’s influence on a young man’s mind in the 70s and 80s.

I decided to write this blog because I want others struggling with speech issues to know that there is a light in the darkness and you CAN make your life as amazing as you want it to be. For those with kids, or about to have one, do keep an eye out for the issue and make sure you talk with you doctor about it. For anyone whose speech impairment is harder to deal with…please don’t think the creative and broadcasting arts are closed to you…write, produce, direct, perform, present, design…it is all there for you, and we need your creativity and insight.

A few years ago I produced a documentary for BBC Radio 4 where I had to visit Arsenal football club to do some interviews. In the chat I learned that the club did a lot of outreach work with local speech therapy units. This totally surprised me…I expected them to do charity work, and support local sports, but speech therapy was unexpected. They explained how they were able to help with issues such as confidence and opportunities to speak in public. Members of the teams would visit and chat and discuss their own fears of talking. What a wonderful and effective thing to do. Here’s a raised glass of something bubbly in honour of everyone who is helping anyone dealing with speech issues…thank you for your generosity.

So…for me, I go back to narrating audiobooks, and talking for a living. As I get older I discover my lexicon may be stagnating but my ability to talk too much remains as strong as ever. Mum and Dad may have spawned a ‘talkative wee bugger’ but I hope I’ve repaid their hard work and dedication by making good use of what they worked so hard to give me the ability to do.

All I ask is…no-one book me in to read anything with lots of rolling r’s in the script, pretty please!



Here’s a link to the NHS page on TONGUE-TIE – CLICK HERE


About the Author:

Neil Gardner is the managing director of leading UK audiobook production house Ladbroke Audio, and audiobook publisher Spokenworld Audio. He has 30 years experience in radio and audio, is an international award-winning producer/director/writer and loves nothing more than making audio for all ages.
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