Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Can You Hear Yourself?

When I was little I spoke Dutch. I don’t anymore.

Let me explain. I didn’t actually speak another language. Speaking Dutch was a phrase, possibly a colloquialism of southwest Pennsylvania, to describe someone with a speech impediment of some sort. My guess is that it was a reference to the accents of the Pennsylvania Dutch (who were mostly German, but whatever).

And in my experience, was meant as an insult. Probably to me and the Pennsylvania Dutch.

I really have no memory of what I sounded like. It wasn’t a stutter. I don’t think it was a lisp. I remember not really understanding what people meant when it was brought to my attention, which happened mainly in the form of being teased by my peers.

There’s a genetic history of speech problems in my family (though I recognize that it’s probably not truly genetic and could have been corrected with speech therapy). My great uncle Frank was, to use another negative and inaccurate description, ‟tongue-tied.” Apparently my Uncle Donny, who died nearly two decades before I was born was the same. I still have cousins who have some minor variations on this.

From first to fourth grade I saw a speech therapist named Mr. Rice. The content of these sessions are lost to my memory. I don’t know if it was every week, or once a month. My main memory is the day when he shook my hand, told me congratulations, and said I didn’t have to come back anymore. This is probably the first time someone shook my hand and congratulated me for achieving something, even if I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I don’t remember progress, or anything changing. I still heard myself the same way I always did. But apparently I didn’t talk Dutch any more.

I was teased about this, but I was also teased about a lot of other things, so even though I’m talking about it here specific incidents don’t really stand out. I don’t think I was ever sensitive about this issue specifically, probably because I was never really able to hear myself through other ears. It certainly didn’t stop me from talking, to individuals or large groups. I talk in front of people all of the time these days and it never crosses my mind. It’s a pretty vague memory of my childhood. I’m not even sure what made me think of it recently. But it has made me think about some stuff.

I know I consciously made an effort to lose my Greene County accent. I’m not even sure that’s a thing. Being south of Pittsburgh it’s a derivation of the classic Yinzer, I’m sure, though most people I know back home tend to pronounce it more like ‟Younz” than ‟Yinz.” My Mom and her parents were from West Virgina so I leaned more toward ‟Y’all” anyway. I didn’t want to say either. At some point in my late teens I ran into someone who asked me what part of the South I was from. Really?

I grew up in a world where people said things like Chimley, and ‟I need to brasch my teeth,” (long vowel sound in that, pronounced kind of like brace but with a shh on the end). We warshed our clothes and sometimes on the weekends went shopping in Warshington. Once I became aware of these things I made an effort to correct myself. I was so appalled by Yinz that to this day, after living in Pittsburgh for twenty-six years, I can’t do a credible imitation of the accent (which may speak more to my abilities as a mimic than anything else). Some things still slip out. I’ll let out an ain’t once in awhile because the English language still doesn’t have a good contraction for Am Not. We don’t have a good inclusive word for a group of people either, so I think I just avoid referring to y’all at all. I’m also pretty sure that redding up my room describes a completely different process than cleaning it.

So I made a conscious effort to red-up the way I spoke, trying to become aware of tics and accents and colloquialisms as much as one can. I don’t know if any of us are ever entirely aware of how we sound to others. I increased my vocabulary through reading and found new ways to express my ideas. Words became my life. I’m a writer. I speak in public frequently. Sometimes I speak in public about things I’ve written. Being good with language became a goal for me, and part of that goal was not to be judged for the way I spoke.

And I’m aware of how this ties in with ideas of class and education.

I once worked with a local politician from my home district. He too had worked to change the way he spoke. One of his goals, stated to me overtly many times, was to be a good orator. He used Cicero as an example. The fact that he used the word orator and referenced Cicero says something. He used a lot of big words, usually to good effect. He took a lot of good-natured ribbing about his erudition from his compatriots in government. But when he was speaking to many of his constituents, comprised of many lower income and poorly educated families, he often sounded not only pretentious, but part of a world they simply could not understand. He didn’t seem to understand that the word ‟colorful” worked much better than ‟polychromatic” with most of his audiences.

Knowing big words does not mean you are actually communicating when you use them.

There are a lot of people who feel left out of the conversation. Because of their level of education. Because of their vocabulary. Because of their lack of exposure to many issues and topics that effect them. There is a genuine lack of comprehension because of these things. It is difficult to bridge that communication gap.

And this is definitely a function of class. Funding to our public schools continues to be cut, limiting the educational opportunities of millions of people. School districts in poor neighborhoods simply don’t have the money to teach these skills adequately. Brilliant teachers are hampered every day by the fiscal realities of their district. Higher education now comes with crippling debt. More and more people have the tools of language and communication less and less.

No one likes to feel stupid. Without these tools to communicate ideas more fully they are left frustrated and angry, both misunderstood and misunderstanding.

Even attempting to address this is difficult. Finding the words to discuss this issue without sounding like the cliché of ‟Intellectual Liberal” does not come easy. I’m afraid that I sound like one of my old tormentors, making fun of someone for ‟talking Dutch” when they have no idea what I’m referring to. But it feels as though any attempt to bridge this gap comes across as ‟talking down” or ‟dumbing down” or ‟aiming at the lowest common denominator.”

I think the problem with these phrases is self-evident.


So this whole post started out as one thing and then the topic highjacked me and became something else. But not really. I began this as a little personal anecdote and it became a metaphor for bigger issues. I got to the point right before the break and realized I had no idea what to say next. For all of my talk of communication I stumbled because I was having difficulty talking about these ideas without expressing, intentional or not, some kind of condescension. This illustrates the core of the problem.

Even though my memories are vague I’m pretty sure one of the things Mr. Rice taught me was to listen more closely. I wasn’t pronouncing words correctly because I wasn’t hearing them accurately. I was unable to form sounds until I processed them.

There’s a pretty clear lesson here, one I and most other people need to pay attention to; Listen. Even when the ideas being expressed seem foreign to you. Especially when you know those who are speaking may not have the same words or experiences or entire frame of reference that you do. Try to understand what is being communicated and remember that a lot of it has nothing to do with words. When you are speaking or writing, remember your audience. Be aware of what you are communicating and how it may be perceived. Not everyone can hear or understand the language you use.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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