When I was a little kid, I had trouble hearing. I could pick up a full range of volume just fine, according to the tests they gave me, but I had a hard time distinguishing between sounds.
“S” sounded like “F” and the soft “TH” to me.
“B” sounded like “V” to me.
Unless I saw a word written out, it was sometimes hard for me to understand precisely what was meant. Based on what I heard, it could have meant anything, really.
I was also a very literal child, who didn’t “get” the whole slang thing. That 1970s song “Convoy”, which was an extended conversation between truckers using their trucking slang, was pretty interesting for me to listen to. I had all sorts of unusual ideas about what exactly was going on there, and when my mother asked me if I knew what the song was about, I said, “Sure! It’s about truckers going bear hunting!”
She gave me a strange look that made me think I was probably wrong — and sure enough, the “hunting bear” reference was really about truckers doing battle with the highway patrol.
I also had a lot of disagreements about what people were talking about and what they were saying to me. I got my letters mixed up, because they all sounded the same to me, and I made up my own (stubborn) mind about what words should be used — and how.
I remember one time I had a pitched battle with my mother, who told me that the name of one of my school friends was “Valerie” — with a “V”. I heard “Balerie” — with a “B”. Never in my life had I heard her name pronounced with a “V” sound, so being the stubborn kid I was, I argued for quite some time and got very, very angry, that my mother had it wrong.
She kept repeating “Valerie… Valerie… Valerie”, drawing a “V” in the air with her finger, and I got angrier and angrier.
Because that wasn’t what I experienced. It wasn’t what I heard.
I also had trouble pronouncing words. I had a “lisp” when I was little, partly because I didn’t realize you had to form “F”, “TH” (the soft one), and “S” differently with your mouth. I thought they were all the same sound, so I picked the one that was the easiest for me to tolerate.
Part of the issue was that I had trouble with my ears — they were so hyper-acute, the sound of an “S” literally hurt them. It was painful to pronounce “S”, so I tried to soften it, like a “TH”. And of course, that was wrong, so I was in speech therapy for some time, to try to correct it.
That was rough. They took me out of my regular classes, and not only was everyone staring at me, but then they walked me through the halls of the massive school that seemed so cavernous and vast to me. I could never remember how to get there, and I got lost a number of times. People got upset with me, because apparently it was easy to get to the speech therapist’s office. Easy for everyone else. I got turned around and couldn’t find my way. And the speech therapist had to keep coming to my classroom to show me the way.
So, I figured I must be an idiot. Such a simple thing … and it was so hard for me. There must have been something really wrong with me.
I also couldn’t makethe sounds right. The speech therapist kept trying to get me to sound out the sounds, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell that there was a difference between them, and try as I might, I couldn’t make the connection between what they were telling me to say, and what I could/did say. It all sounded the same to me, and nobody explained to me the way to shape the sounds in my mouth, so I could say them correctly.
After some time trying to work with me, the speech therapist gave up. They may have suspected I just wasn’t trying. Or they couldn’t justify spending any more time with me, because I wasn’t making any progress. They may have also believed I was deliberately being difficult.
There were a lot of things that were pretty challenging for me, which I “should” have been able to do. But I couldn’t. And nobody seemed to know how to help me.
What really would have helped, is if someone had just told me that you shape words different ways with your mouth. Everybody seemed to take for granted, that everyone knows that. But looking at someone’s mouth from a distance, you cannot see the position of their tongue or their teeth or even the subtle differences in their lips. “B” looked pretty much like “V” to me. And even though “TH”, “S”, and “F” look different from a distance, I could not tell the difference in the sounds, so I could never tell if I was saying it correctly.
So, I went with the sound that was the least painful — the “TH”.
Eventually, it dawned on me that sounds were shaped differently, and if I just formed them properly, even if it didn’t sound right to me, others would get it. I have no idea if I reached this conclusion myself, or if it finally sank in, after I was on my own and the lessons of the speech therapist finally sank in with me. I used to think I figured it out by myself, but now I think it could have been a delayed realization.
In retrospect, it would have been really helpful, if someone had just sat me down and explained to me slowly and carefully, in very clear and logical terms, that words and sounds were produced with certain positions of lips, tongue, and teeth. And have me practice making those sounds with my mouth. Even if I couldn’t hear the sounds properly, I could know that I was forming the words correctly, so others would understand me. Even if I didn’t get it, at least someone would. And 1 out of 2 is better than 0 for 2.
Then again, they may have tried. But I was a tough case. I had trouble paying attention. If people didn’t explain to me why we were doing something, I lost interest. I was also overwhelmed and stressed from the walk to the speech therapist’s office, so that made it hard to concentrate. Plus, I didn’t know why I wasn’t getting it. I just didn’t know. And neither did they, apparently.
The whole speech and articulation thing just messed with my head when I was little — to the point that I started hyper-articulating things, and I became pretty OCD about making sure I was pronouncing words exactly right. It’s one of the reasons I can pronounce foreign words pretty well and also simulate a non-English accent pretty well. I get extremely nervous if I don’t pronounce something right. It’s a visceral reaction to past bad experiences, I guess.
As a kid, I had so many failed interactions, thanks to my speech and comprehension difficulties. On my first day at kindergarten, I couldn’t articulate to the teachers what my address was, so they couldn’t put me on the right bus. And after my first day of school, ever, when my mother was waiting at the bus stop, her firstborn was nowhere to be found. The school called to tell her they were giving me a ride home, but my mother almost lost it when I didn’t get off the bus.
I had lots of trouble with kids at school, too. I tried to talk, but I couldn’t seem to make myself understood. I felt like I was babbling into the wind, and it might have sounded that way to them, too.
Ultimately, when I could read books, I turned to them for company. That was enough. It was more than enough for me. Books didn’t make fun of me, they didn’t look at me strangely, they didn’t correct me, they didn’t test me to see if I got it. They were just there, waiting to impart their knowledge. Of course they never told me how to pronounce the big words that I found there (I thought rendezvous was pronounced renn-dezz-vus, until my dad told me otherwise), but then, that never mattered, because I had the meaning in my head.
I swear, I really don’t know what is up with people who can’t be direct and just come right out and tell people what the deal is. Hinting around and intimating makes me nuts. It drove me nuts as a kid, and it still does today.
If I’m messing up, just tell me. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. And it’s a heck of a lot easier to deal with, when you have direct information, rather than trying to “go easy” on me. Easy is hard. Direct is simpler.
Don’t make me guess — just tell me what the deal is.
And then I’ll deal.