Language Stories

No lesson here, just reminiscing. I have a client, age 13, with moderate-to-severe developmental disabilities. Very social, loves music, loves simple word games such as being asked what sound various animals make, or asking me my favorite color, etc.. I generally see her for 3-5 hours a week, and have done so for the past two years. And just the other day, I had a very disquieting thought. It occurred to me, suddenly, that I probably understand more of what she says than anyone else in her life. Which is both unacceptable and understandable.

You see, in addition to assorted other disabilities and delays, she has a very profound speech impediment. She sometimes uses an iPad to communicate, but not often, and not with much fluency. She prefers speaking verbally. And, provided I pay very close attention and have had enough coffee, I can understand perhaps 75% of what she says. I don’t think anyone else in her life gets more than 50%. Teachers and therapists aren’t in her life long enough to learn. Her parents, in addition to being very busy people, are not native English speakers. They speak English quite fluently, but when you’re trying to decode speech based on minimal clues, there’s no substitute for having grown up with the language.

It’s not just the fact that her pronunciation is hard to understand. There’s also her unique patterns of speaking. She tends to drop consonant sounds, even the few she’s capable of making when she really tries. She drops words out of her phrases, syllables out of her words. And she speaks in the way people jot down notes to themselves, where a few key words stand for entire thoughts or requests. This is where it’s necessary to know her very well, because even if she pronounced those words perfectly, much of her speech would still be utterly mysterious to someone who doesn’t know what she’s referencing.  There’s often quite a lot of guesswork even for someone who does know her.

If she comes to me and says “bus” (a word she can produce reasonably intelligibly), she might mean “I want you to make the sound of a bus” or she might mean “I want you to sing Wheels on the Bus.” Even if she says “I want bus,” I know she isn’t asking to ride on a bus. Sometimes for the song, she’ll say “duh bus” (the bus) or add the “round and round” gesture used in the song. Her BIs are working fairly intensively on getting her to give more information in her speech, so now sometimes she’ll say “sound bus” when she wants the sound. And if we’re already playing “make sounds of things,” it’s a good bet she wants a bus noise. She’s also pretty good with simple yes/no questions, so I can just ask. This is pretty simple. And many of her other shortenings are relatively easy to pick up, too: “A B song” is the alphabet song, “Gaga face” is Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and what sounds like “Fie uh wayn” is Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” “Uh dime it?” means “What time is it?” Some of her abbreviations make a lot of sense, especially for someone who struggles with pronunciation– cutting out articles and other words that aren’t as important to the meaning of what she’s saying. Others are less sensible and actually interfere with the meaning of what she’s saying. I don’t know if those happen because she doesn’t want to try and say certain words, or if there’s an actual cognitive disability in terms of her ability to recognize or remember or think in full sentences. Probably some of both.

***

Sometimes figuring out the reference is pretty hard. I often run though handfuls of guesses before hitting on the right one, and then I have to remember what that particular phrase means again in the future. Not as easy as it sounds, especially when many of those phrases are very similar, or sound very different from their correct pronunciations. When she asks “How was your day?” it often comes out sounding like “Wuh woo they?” I never would have figured out what it meant on my own; the BI who taught her that question filled me in on what she was saying, and I had to hear it a couple of times before it stuck in my mind. It doesn’t help that she sometimes ask “What’s today?” (as in, what day of the week is it), and it sounds pretty much the same. The way she says “color” is identical to how she says “flavor” (and I have no idea how to write it!). “White” and “grey” can both come out sounding like “why.” Something that sounded like a cross between “hammock” and “omelet” turned out to be a request for “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” So I have to guess at what sounds she is trying to produce, what word or phrase or part thereof those sounds are meant to represent, AND what she’s trying to convey by using those particular words.

Sometimes she finds a way to give me clues, sometimes not. Once, she asked over and over for “ghee ew up,” to my utter confusion. My brain started trying out possibilities: Giddy-up? Something about horses? Do I know a song about horses that I’ve sung to her before? (Many of her requests are for songs, which at least gives me some idea where to start). Or maybe it’s something about getting up. Is she asking me to help her get up? “Give it up,” perhaps. Is that a song? It might be a pop song I don’t know; she listens to a lot of pop music. Maybe I’m assuming word breaks in the wrong places. The last two syllables could be “Europe.” All along, of course, I’m saying things like “I’m sorry, I don’t understand, can you tell me another way? What is it?”

Finally she added a gesture– clasping her hands and swinging them back and forth. She had to do that a few times before I finally was able to make the mental leap to a song we’d sung together a few weeks prior. She was asking for “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Really. Here’s the logic: her favorite line in the song is “Take the key and lock her up, my fair lady.” (And sometimes, when I’m feeling energetic, I hold hands with her on that line and swing our hands back and forth.) So she was quoting her favorite line, but omitting most of the words, leaving her with the phrase “key her up,” which I was only able to figure out once I knew what she was asking in the first place. Sometimes at this job I feel a bit like a cryptographer. Or a linguistic anthropologist.

***

Another time, she said what sounded like “WUH wiggen.” No clue. She said it a few more times, but I was drawing a blank. Sadly, I can’t get her to add information by asking things like “What is it?” or “Can you tell me more about it?” or “Can you show me on your iPad?” but experience has taught me that sometimes she can answer certain yes/no questions that help me narrow it down.

(And rarely, wonderfully, if it’s a song, she’ll try and sing it for me. Her singing is beautiful, but not much more comprehensible than her speech. She only ever pronounces the final syllable of any line, the rest being filled in with moderately accurate vowel sounds with “w” substituted for the consonants. And while she can hold a note pretty well if she’s singing along to the radio or YouTube, when singing alone she’s very quiet, and the melody fades the same way the lyrics do, only bubbling to the surface briefly in places. Still, I love her singing, and there’s always a special thrill when she hits a line in the chorus and I finally recognize what she’s going for and start singing it with her and her face lights up with a smile about a mile wide.)

But this wasn’t one of those times.

“I don’t understand. Is that a person?” I ask. Could she have a friend at school named Mulligan or Brannigan or something like that?

“WUH wiggen,” she repeats.

“A food?”

She says it again, “WUH wiggen.” I admire her persistence. And sometimes, if she says something enough times, my brain will finally match her sounds up to actual words. The cadence helps a lot. But sometimes, we both just end up frustrated. Sometimes I work to get her attention onto something else instead, if I really don’t have a clue.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know it. Pick something else.”

“WUH wiggen.” She’s starting to look annoyed, and I can’t blame her. Could it be a game?… An animal?

“Is it a song?”

“Yeah.” Finally, a clue! But I can’t think of any song titles that match up. It could be anything from a nursery rhyme to a new release. The odds are against me, but serendipity is on my side. I somehow finally parse the words as “love again,” recognize them as belonging to the line “we can learn to love again,” and cross my fingers.

“Just Give Me a Reason? Is that what you want me to sing?” And finally, there’s the smile. Phew! I think she heaves a sigh of relief along with me. I laugh at the utter absurdity of the mental journey we’ve both just taken in order to reach common ground. And yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about myself for figuring that one out.

By the way, the song is completely out of my range and I only know about half the lyrics. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even try to sing it in the shower, much less where anyone can hear me. But I know that exchange was hard work for her as well as for me. I know it’s stressful for her to try over and over to make someone understand, with no guarantee of success. In short, she’s earned it. So I give it my best shot. Top of my lungs. And she smiles and smiles.

***

I wish more people in her life could decipher her speech too, but how could I ever explain to someone how to decode her communication? How could I teach them to seek out those mental leaps? I don’t even know how I do it, or how to improve. There’s no secret formula for this, no easy answer. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve failed at understanding her requests. Innumerable apologies for innumerable disappointments. Or the times I’ve figured something out, and then forgotten it on another day.

I’m proud of the times I’ve succeeded. I’m proud of her every time she figures out a way to give me more information. The leap from just saying “bus” to saying “sound bus” is huge. I still don’t know that she could go up to anyone and say “sound bus” and be understood, but it’s definitely progress. I’m sure that eventually she’ll be able to say “make sound of a bus,” and then she’ll be able to request it from anyone, not just the handful of people who know her best. I’m looking forward to that day on her behalf.

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