The Language Barrier

These days, most of my time is divided between wishing my toddler would talk more, and silently willing nearly everyone else to shut the f*ck up.  You see, my beautiful, bright, sweet little boy has a speech delay – which, while both common and curable, is not without its own set of trials and tribulations.  As with all things involving parenting and child development, the causes and treatments of delayed speech are subject to much speculation and debate.  No two parents’ approaches, clinicians’ assessments, or children’s experiences are likely to be identical, so while I am interested in the experiences of others, I do not subscribe to the notion that there is only one “right” way to address the issue at hand.

Input I have gotten from teacher and a pediatrician with regards to T’s speech has been focused primarily on meeting developmental milestones, and getting him to the same level as kids his age in (pre-)school.  His speech therapist is a dynamo who works on engaging him and getting words out in the context of fun.  As his mama, my primary concern is on my son’s quality of life.  What I mean is that I have a child with four-year-old needs and thoughts who is only able to make himself understood using two-year-old vocabulary and sentence structure.  If it can be frustrating and at times heartbreaking to try to understand what he is trying to communicate, being on T’s end could only be exponentially more agonizing.

The best way I can explain how it might feel to be a kid with a speech delay is to describe what my first year in Paris was like.  At 19, I moved to France.  Not, like, a semester abroad.  Full-on, year-round Frenchification in the City of Lights, speaking the language of love.  Well, theoretically, anyway…  What I discovered in short order, was that despite a good ear for language, more than a decade of intensive French study under my belt, and even family fluent in multiple Latin languages, I was nearly incapable of making my needs known in the language of my adopted country.  It was humbling and frustrating, to say the very least. 

Upon arrival, I was relieved to find that I could follow what people were saying (and often knew more than needed to ask for or order things, and participate in conversation), but when it came to speaking, I bombed completely.  Everything I said seemed painfully slow and often mispronounced.  I began stumbling over my words at the first sign that someone was having difficulty understanding me, and any hint of impatience caused immediate panic and rendered me mute.  I kept at it, day after day, until the first time someone “helpfully” corrected me.  The experience was so humiliating that I stopped speaking to strangers altogether for six months.

A phenomenon I observed when having my own communication struggles, that it pains me to see my son experiencing is this: When someone’s expressive language is limited, regardless of the cause, it often leads people to talk to that person as if they are less intelligent (in my case) or younger (in my son’s) than they are.  While not necessarily indicative of malicious intent, it can still be devastating.  A developmental speech delay is a language barrier in its own right, limiting the affected person to a stock-set of vocabulary words, short phrases and uncomplicated subjects.  So, to someone without knowledge of the situation, my son may indeed sound like he has the interests and comprehensive capacity of only a two-year-old.

Except that he doesn’t.

T has complete understanding of what he wants, ranging from activities and companions to musical selection in the car (which version played on which instrument by which artist at what volume level).  He expects creative control of his wardrobe (preference: no clothes!  If clothing is not optional: pajamas, in which case he has specific and varying requirements for material, style, color and design).  He narrates episodes of his own variety show – which Mommy has named The Three Bun-Buns, since the main characters are 3 identical stuffed bunnies.  T has given each of the Buns’ “voices” which sound a bit like variations on the enthusiastic but dippy Dory of Pixar film fame.

What is probably not readily apparent to others is that my little guy is as aware of what he’d like to say as he is of how his attempts at communication are received.  Some days, I see his little heart get shattered as he tries over and over to share something that he can’t quite articulate.  It takes an incredible amount of bravery and resilience to persist in the face of so much adversity, to have a four-year-old’s mind paired with a two-year-old’s speech capability.  There are times when I can barely stand to witness his frustration and disappointment.

So, the next time you notice a child struggling to find his words, please do not cut him off.  Kindly do not try to finish his sentence for him, or look behind him to see how many kids are lining up at the ice cream truck while he repeats his order a few times in an effort to make himself understood.  Do not assume he doesn’t know what he is trying to say, or that he is unaware that you might be wondering what is “wrong” with him.  Instead: Be patient.  Be kind.  Be compassionate.  Be receptive.  That 4-year-old may have more to teach you with his 2-year-old’s vocabulary and sentence structure than you have learned in all your years on Earth.

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