I was eight months pregnant (which means hormones probably exacerbated the situation) when my husband accepted a job transfer overseas to South America. Knowing this was in my future, I took Spanish language classes and practiced with friends and my husband. I thought that I was ready. I thought I was bilingual.
The very first morning on my new job as a stay-at-home pregnant wife, I was to go to the grocery store. My husband went off to work, and I waddled to my destination. I immediately realized two things on my walk:
The country was very considerate of pregnant women, and traffic signs were merely “suggestions.” While I didn’t necessarily stand out as a “gringa” (translation: American female) as soon as I opened my mouth and uttered my first syllable, I was pegged as an “extranjera” (translation: foreigner). That morning, I sadly realized that I could not be understood. Was it my pronunciation (I didn’t think my accent was that bad) or my language skills (past tense was rough) or both?
By noon, I called my husband in tears (it was not just the estrogen) and started counting down the days (1,459 days to be exact) until I could leave my new home. As time went on, I learned the language well enough to carry on a simple conversation. However, simple activities of daily life such as calling for a doctor’s appointment or explaining how I wanted my hair cut sent me into a state of complete panic. Despite reading from a sticky note exactly what I wanted to say, I still continued to end up with the last appointment of the day and many bad haircuts.
One frantic trip to the emergency room with an infant was enough to order every Spanish book on Amazon and to hire a tutor. In time, I still received terrible haircuts and paid the “gringa” price for items, but I also learned to successfully ask the pediatrician’s office for “la cita más temprana posible (translation: the earliest appointment possible).”
Has the ability to communicate effectively ever held you back? What about a family member? A friend? Your child? There are many manifestations of communication disorders, so it is more common than you think. Let’s talk about some famous people. Annie Glenn, wife of astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn, would not publically speak until many years after her husband first orbited the earth after intensive speech therapy to address her stuttering. Barbara Walters, with her rhotacized “r,” became a constant joke on Saturday Night Live. Anyone watch “The King’s Speech” about the royal monarch who stammered? These are incredible stories of people working hard so that their communication disorders did not define them as individuals.
These examples may differ in terms of the reasons for the communication breakdown, but the bottom line is that a message could not be conveyed to a listener. As social creatures, dependent on each other to live, we need to be able to communicate, whether it’s verbally, manually (sign language), or with the use of an alternative communication device (AAC). I believe that communication is essential to our existence. We all have a need to connect. It goes along with air, water, food and shelter.
How could I—a speech pathologist— help? After an evaluation, I create an individualized, play-based treatment plan to address the unique needs of each of my clients. I also ensure that I collaborate with family and involve medical professionals, which is integral. The goals are designed to enable the client to participate with activities of daily life to their fullest potential. As a language specialist, I provide intervention in all areas of language: expressive (what a person says), receptive (what a person understands), grammar (rules of the language), articulation (speech sounds), pragmatic language (social skills), fluency (stuttering) and voice. Where would you find a speech pathologist near you? Ask your friends, your pediatrician or a neighbor. Still no luck? Look on the American Speech Language & Hearing Association’s website, the national organization for speech language pathologists.
What I can tell you is that my experience as an ineffective communicator was brief, but the experience will last me a lifetime. I believe that it has made me a better person and therapist.
MARYFRANCES GONZALEZ, MA CCC/SLP is a wife, mother, speech pathologist and advocate for children with special needs. She founded her private practice in Loudoun County that provides pediatric speech therapy services. She spends her time making a difference, raising her two bilingual little boys, and attempting to cook for her Cuban-American husband.