Language and Literacy narrative
March 1, 2022
While I realize the impracticality of what I am about to say as I write this cover letter, I wrote this piece for me.
One of the Course Learning Outcomes for this class’s semester was to “Recognize the role of language attitudes and standards in empowering, oppressing, and hierarchizing languages and their users.” Throughout this phase, I have had my entire mindset on personal language usage altered. To be fully honest, I had been resigned to the idea that however unfortunate this was, it held true that if one was not speaking professional and Standard English, they were simply speaking English incorrectly. And while it is alright to sometimes speak incorrectly, in many contexts one should not do that.
Specifically, June Jordan’s “Nobody Means More to Me Than You And the Future Life of Willie Jordan” opened my eyes to the richness and validity of differences in language (1988, pp. 363-375). In procuring a list of grammatical guidelines for Black English, Jordan proves with finality that Black English can be both scholarly and spoken “correctly.” It stands on its own, and should not be viewed merely as a broken manifestation of Standard English, but as its cousin, descended from a common ancestor and on an identical level of legitimacy.
Allowing me to recognize and break down my impression that there is only one correct English freed me to think that maybe my English too had never been wrong in the first place.
In the following writing I will be discussing how I never saw a problem with my speech impediment until an adult told me I should. Since then, I had long regarded my old lisp as a glaring imperfection, both throughout my time in speech therapy and even once it was gone. In creating this narrative, I was able to dwell on whether that was true, on who gets to decide whether it is true, and where the concept of a speech impediment really comes from.
I say I wrote this piece for me, because it is important to question the norm when you are told that you do not fit into it, and I did not have such an opportunity when the statement that my speaking was wrong was masked as fact. My intent was therefore that others in a similar situation should be able to have their perspectives altered, just as mine was, to one more open minded and ultimately correct. I can only hope that my experiences can change the way at least one person thinks, and allow them to see the world differently.
“Don’t worry, I told her you’d fix it.”
I stared at my sister, shock and disbelief preventing me from fully processing what she had just said. I couldn’t fix it, and I knew it.
If you, reader, have ever seen the Ice Age movies, you may recall a character called Sid the Sloth (Saldanha, 2009). Sid was, in my humble opinion, inarguably the most crucial element to the comedic value of the movies. He was frequently inflicted with bouts of clumsiness and delusions that dinosaurs were his own children and him their mother, as well as general signs of stupidity and low intellect. To catch the general gist of his character:
As one can see, the sloth also spoke with an extremely prominent lisp. Growing up, I was often told that I sounded like Sid the Sloth. To that I would reply that although I did not hear the resemblance, I was honored that my presence could invoke memories of such an iconic figure.
Elementary schoolers and adolescents can be brutal, often without realizing it. My speech impediment was brought up by others fairly often as I navigated through childhood schooling and socializing. Kids can be brutal, but it is hard to hurt someone without a weapon. I saw no issue with the way I spoke, and therefore had no aversion to acknowledging it. If someone called out to the “girl with the lisp” to get my attention, I would turn with a grin and ask what was up. If someone said the way I pronounced something sounded strange, I would cheerfully agree, before repeating it sixteen more times without any attempt to change my original pronunciation. When peers told me I “talked weird,” it had a similar effect to telling me that I was wearing a green shirt that day; whether or not it was true, it was an observation, nothing more. I was so used to how I spoke that I could not hear the lisp, and would sometimes even ask my would-be tormenter to try and imitate the way I sounded, out of sheer curiosity.
While the fact still stands that my speech impediment was often mentioned, I would just as often hear from my peers that they had not noticed it until it was pointed out by someone else. As such, I will let you decide for yourself how prominent it was.
It is extremely easy to teach a child what is okay and what is not okay for others to do. Have them interact with a diverse group and explain race to them, and they learn that it is okay for their friends to have different skin colors. Buy them a toy in purple and their sibling a toy in blue, and they know for the rest of their life that it is okay for people to like different things. Produce movies where the awkward and incapable character is always recognizable by a speech impediment, and you have just taught an entire generation to look down on people who do not speak the same way they do.
It was not the children my age who taught me that my speech was not good enough, as it was a lesson I would not let them teach me. It was yesterday’s children, who had not had control over what they were taught but had now become the teachers.
All three of my older sisters were lawyers on my school’s mock trial team when they were in high school. As a high schooler, I had no desire whatsoever to be a lawyer on the mock trial team. However, I did have a desire to show that I was superior to my siblings in every way, which should be enough of an explanation as to how I found myself at tryouts in the beginning of my sophomore year. I cannot recall what trying out for mock trial entailed, only leaving with the rest of the auditioners once it was over, so that the coach and team could discuss everyone’s performance.
The next day during my morning break, my sister chatted enthusiastically with me about the coach’s analysis of each of the girls who tried out. The coach of the mock trial team was as harsh and no-nonsense as they come, a family lawyer by day who demanded the same discipline and perfection from the girls on mock trial that she practiced as an attorney in the courtroom. As a result, the team had at its best a cutthroat and at its worst a downright aggressive atmosphere. There would be no pity cases let onto the team, and no punches were held as the coach decided the fate of the mock trial auditioners. One girl had not made enough eye contact, one did too much talking and too little thinking, and one was far too much of a smart-[redacted]. My sister finally relayed what had been said about me, and a solemn expression crossed over her face.
The actual content of my audition was certainly satisfactory, the coach had said thoughtfully. But it was a shame about the speech impediment. After all, her team needed to be taken seriously if they wanted to get to finals.
It would be a few seconds before the full weight of that statement would sink in, during which a proud smile broke through my sister’s expression. While the situation certainly was not ideal, I was told, all was not lost, as she had made a deal on my behalf. “Don’t worry,” she said, reassuring me that I still had a chance to play a role in the coming year’s trial, “I told her you’d fix it.”
I have been told that it takes three weeks to build a habit. If that is true, up until that point in my life I had reinforced the habit of my way of speaking over two hundred and sixty times. That is quite a lot of time to undo in a few months.
In one singular moment, I was unpreparedly hit full in the face with the impact of someone you truly respect declaring you unworthy of respect and attention, for reasons completely out of your control. I knew my lisp was not something I could fix right then, and as a matter of fact did not know how I could even begin to change it. I mourned every word I had said for the past fifteen years, now that I had been told how utterly ridiculous I’d sounded. I could barely choke out a response, with my newfound knowledge that every word would come out foolish and incorrect. Averting my eyes, I quietly said that I would do my best to learn how to speak.
I spent the next year and a half or so stuttering and stumbling through sentences, getting my voice caught halfway through a word, and overall sounding completely ridiculous as I struggled to speak in a way completely unnatural to me. I dropped off the mock trial team, but was determined to rid myself of what I now considered to be a pathetic and embarrassing affliction. It was a grueling and frustrating process, and casual conversation became a source of annoyance and exertion. Once a week I went to a speech therapist and watched as seven and eight year olds streamed out of the office before my scheduled appointment. I would often ask for a lollipop after my session, to make light of the fact that I was by far the oldest client frequenting that building. But I wondered why no one had sought to fix such a big issue earlier, when it would have been easier for me to change.
I am glad I no longer have a lisp. I persevered, and am proud of myself for not giving up until I could speak without it. But it is a tragedy that we live in a world where an adult not only could, but should shame a fifteen year old into changing how she speaks, if not only so she will not have to face the same humiliation later in life.
I nearly underwent a surgery to help me learn to speak “normally.” It certainly was not a necessary surgery, nor was it one to help with any physical ailment or pain. I suppose it would be a form of aesthetic surgery. In a world where we look down on those who undergo plastic surgery, we still fail to realize that it is a consequence of a culture we continue to perpetuate. In truth, the mindset leading to my surgery would not have been much different than ones that lead to receiving a nose job.
We are not born seeing our flaws. They are pointed out by those around us, sometimes explicitly, with a comment or stern talking to, and sometimes implicitly, as we are shown repeatedly what we should look like, sound like, and act like, and begin to realize that none of those things remind us of ourselves. And while it is important to learn not to be rude to others, it is nothing but sad to learn that our differences make us broken. Industries are built on these fleeting standards of how to be perfect, and as we continue to desperately fabricate more and more ways to reach that standard, we don’t realize how much we are hurting ourselves and the people around us.
What does it mean to have a speech impediment?
We all know what speech is. When one verbally communicates in any language, they are exercising their abilities in speech. An impediment implies that one’s speech is in some way hindering their communication abilities, that they are being held back by their manner of speaking. The most obvious manifestation of this would be that their impediment is making them difficult to understand. This is certainly not the case with a lisp, nor for most of the minor “speech impediments” (for lack of better terminology). Another explanation would be that a condition actually makes it difficult for those afflicted to speak. However, we learn to speak in the way that is most natural to us, so to say that completely pronunciation-based speech impediments make it more difficult to speak doesn’t make much sense. Henceforth, we are forced to settle on a third option: that the “impediment” element of a speech impediment is not in fact the speech itself, but the people around us.
To my younger self, there was no logical reason to consider lisping an issue. And that is because it is an issue of our own creation, an affliction not of the one with the impediment, but of those who see it as one. To call someone’s speech a speech impediment is to yourself become the speech impediment. To convince someone else that speaking differently is a problem turns a speech impediment into a contagious disease which is then further spread. Even more people then become the impediment for individuals who sound slightly different, and the cycle continues.
I do not blame the high school mock trial coach for becoming my speech impediment. It was not her fault that she learned the way I spoke was wrong, and she was correct in believing that many others had become speech impediments as well. Besides, it is difficult to alter a mindset that has been ingrained in us from such a young age. But if we all simultaneously let go of the belief that the way I used to speak was wrong, it no longer would be. I became afraid to record my voice once I was told that it did not deserve to be heard. Today, I will be using it to conclude what I have to say.
Jordan, June. “Nobody Mean More to Me than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 58, no. 3, 1988, pp. 363–375., https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.58.3.d171833kp7v732j1.
Saldanha, Carlos, director. Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. 20th Century Fox, 2009.