Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mean Girls, Anorexis, Speech Impediments, and Sensitivity

I have a somewhat morbid obsession with speech impediments. Someone might ask, "Why then, did you not pursue speech pathology as a career?" The answer is that I'm intrigued but not that intrigued. I wouldn't want to make it my life's work.

As the daughter of  mother who holds a doctorate in educational psychology (in addition to music performance) I was expected from an early age not to ridicule others with differences or disabilities.
It wasn't always easy to meet these expectations. When other kids were calling me "Anorexis" and (in the case of one girl) doing so with a lateral lisp ( in which air escapes from the sides of the mouth when the /s/ is made, producing  something that sounds more like /sh/ than /s/) .  It was difficult in such cases not to say something back to the person who was  insulting me using the speech impediment she used in insulting me. I knew, however, that had word gotten back to my mother, I would have been in trouble, so I kept my mouth shut when the girl with the  speech impediment called me "Anorexis."

By middle school -- the era  in which my nickname "Anorexis" was coined -- most kids with classic frontal lisps-- where the tongue sticks out and a sound resembling /th/ is produced in place of /s/, have usually outgrown them or had them remedied through speech therapy. The more difficult to correct, and thus more commonly lingering and remaining obvious speech impediments tend to be  lateral lisps, dysfluency [AKA stuttering], and inability to produce /r/, which occurs most frequency as a result of aphasia. In a gross oversymplification, aphasia has something to do with the inability of the brain and certain muscles to work together to physicallly make the movements that are necessarily to produce certain sounds.  The most common sound affected by this disorder is /r/, with /l/  and /y/ probably being the second and third  most frequent.

It's common for very young children to replace /r/ with/w/. By somewhere around the age of  four, more that half of English-speaking children living where a western or midwestern dialect is spoken have mastered the standard production of /r/.  It is generally considered that formal speech therapy should be sought if a child has not mastered /r/ by the age of seven.

Some adults never master /r/. In a perfect world, the person could move to Boston, where /r/, especially in medial and word-ending  positions, is often pronouced more closely to the way those with the particular form of apraxia impairing their respective abilities to produce the sound say it. Such is often not practical, unfortunately. Inability to pronounce /r/ in adulthood will most likely not be corrected.

One of my friends recently dated a guy who lacked the ability to pronouce /r/. During their dinner date, the guy was critical of what he considered the girl's rather large feet, in a way that she didn't feel was facetious or good-natured. (For the record, she wears a size 8 1/2 shoe and is 5' 5". The foot size-to-height ratio might be slightly large, although I've never made a study of such things.)  She said she was tempted to respond with, "But at least I can prononce my r' s," but she resisted the impulseShe chose instead to decline any future invitations from the guy. One would think that he might have known that he lived in a glass house, metaphorically speaking, and that he wasn't really in a position to make petty criticisms of someone else's shoe size or anything else, especially in a dating situation.

A girl in one of my  classes in an earlier quarter is named Jennifer. She lacks the ability to produce /r/, but I was initially unaware of this. Usually those who cannot produce /r/ substitute with /w/, but this girl instead  substituted with /l/ followed by a schwa sound, or unaccented syllable. So when I asked her name, she responded with "Jennifla." I thought it a slightly odd name, but far from the strangest name I've heard in this age when people are naming their children Imunique and Nevaeh [heaven spelled backwards] Jennifla seemed barely to the left of mainsteam. It was a class that was primarily lecture, with only limited input from students, and the professor called none of us by name. Our professor had us sign in rather than orally taking attendance, so I never heard him pronounce the gir's name, and she usually arrived after I did, so I didn't see her name in written form for quite some time. Then one day I was in line to sign in just after her, and I saw her name written as Jennifer. I felt like the most insensitive person in the world.

Dysfluency, or stuttering, is one of the most difficult speech disorders to correct, and is probably the most frustrating, especially to the person suffering from the disorder but also to those who communicate with the person suffering from the disorder. It can stem from neurological, emotional, or unknown causes.  One thing that is known is that the worst thing a person can do for a person suffering from this disorder is to say something like, "Just spit it out! We're waiting." No one is more frustrated by the situation than the stutterer himself.  A guy who usually sat in front of me in a music course has a severe case of dysfluency. Our professor asked us each week to give the number of minutes we'd devoted to practice of the instruments we were supposed to study. The poor guy would tell me his number of minutes in the event that he couldn't get it out when the instructor called his name. It was worst for him when he felt put on the spot. Like many stutterers, he has no dysfluency when he sings.

My mom remembers a girl from her high school days who had a fairly drastic lateral lisp - the kind that makes /s/ sound like /sh/.  The girl was very bright, though probably not as smart as my mom. The girl's parents were somewhat educated, and the girl received speech therapy with only limited success. According to my mom, this girl wasn't very nice to my mom, and made fun of my mom because she occasionally wore clothes that weren't terribly stylish because she didn't have tons of clothing and she was doing the laundry for her father and herself at that point since her own mom had died. Sometimes my mom would be too busy to do laundry, as she was doing the cooking and cleaning as well,  so she'd wear one of last year's outfits because it was at least clean.  This girl was fond, my mom said, of pointing out, usually in front of as many people as possible, the out-of-stylishness of my mom's outfits on the days she wore her outfits from the previous year.

This woman went on to become an attorney and eventually a judge somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.  My mom says even though she knows it's unkind to have such thoughts, she wonders if the woman ever was able to remedy her lateral lisp, or if she calls out "Objection Shushtained" or "Shidebar" each time either one is called for in her courtroom. My mom is nicer than I. I'd probably show up in the woman's courtroom to see it for myself.


  1. Interesting post, Alexis. I am impressed by your knowledge of speech impediments. I guess everyone has something other people can use to pick on them. I have a cousin who, when we were growing up, was really mean to me. He stuttered a lot and, I think, had trouble with his r's. He grew up into a really handsome guy... I mean, other people think he looks like a male model. I don't see it, though, because even though we're cousins, he was always mean to me when we were growing up and I haven't forgotten it. I hold grudges.

  2. I could really relate to this post on many levels; stuttering, anorexia and bullying. Thanks for sending it to me.

    My youngest had a severe form of clonic block stuttering as a very young child. She could barely get a sentence out. Through very intensive and very early intervention, ages 2 and 3, within a year it was completely gone and has never returned. It was heart wrenching to see her struggle those years.

    Due to her illness, she has lost 13 pounds the past few months bringing her to under 90 pounds at age 17. To say she is thin is an understatement. Luckily she has never been the brunt of any bullying .....luckily for the bully that is ..... this mama don't play.

    Everyone has had their crosses in life to bare and bullying is nothing new as your mom has pointed out. The only difference is that today, with the internet and social media, it has become much easier to be cruel in a cowardly way. It's a dangerous slope as no one ever knows how vulnerable their victim is or what drastic self harming measures they could take.

    Taking the high road and not lowering yourself into the "middle school" stupidity is quite admirable and says a lot about your character (and fear of your mom < love it) an attribute the bullies can never get back. I see the tide changing, just interviewed Lee Hirsch director of the Bully movie last week, I think we are seeing the trend of bullies being the losers and the ones with the most issues.

    Like the judge calling "Objection Shushtained" .... karma baby!

    1. Glad you made it through the wedding and enjoyed it. I can relate to your poor daughter. I made it to 90 lbs. for the first time in my life, only to get influenza and lose four pounds. Your daughter is probably taller than I (I'm almost 5'2" with hope of growing up to an inch according to my most recent bone scan) so she's probably even thinner than I am.

      While I think bullying is an eternaloffspring thing (I think even Jesus' apostles bullied one another, as did the Saducees and Pharisees) I think the current awareness is causing it to be on the downswing, and there seem to be social consequences now for parents who allow or even encourage their offspring to pick on those smaller, weaker, or otherwise more vulnerable.

      At my former high school, the varsity football coach, a family friend, has made it his personal mission to see that his players do not bully anyone, and he also expects them to step in when they see it happening with others. He's trying to get the cheer coach to join him in this, as some of the worst bullying is done by girls. It's more subtle and harder to catch. The other athletic coaches seem pretty much on board (a center sat out a boys' basketball playoff game for tripping an underclassman in the hallway). The girls' sports teams don't seem to have so much of an issue with bullying. It's not that it never happens, but it's relatively rare. The girls with th cheerleader/dance team mentality are a little more prone to such behaviors. The football coach as having a hard time getting both the cheer coach and the dance coach on board with his anti-bullying campaign. I don't know the dance coach, but I always saw the cheer coach as somewhat of a bully herself. Maybe that has something to do with her reluctance to take a stand against it. Perhaps the administration needs to have a little "shidebar" with her.

      Livinh well truly is the best form of revenge.

  3. My soon-to-be-Ex has a stutter, typically more pronounced when he's upset. He is the oldest of 4 boys, and his youngest brother has a stutter. Though his brothers is much more pronounced, because he stutters quite a bit during a regular conversation.

    It's interesting what you wrote, "It can stem from neurological, emotional, or unknown causes." because I have a strong feeling both are from the emotional side of things...

  4. I feel so bad for those who stutter. Having a conversation with a person suffering from such a disorder makes me a nervous wreck by the time the conversation is over, and it's certainly no fault of that person's. Who would do such a thing to oneself?

  5. My Nana cannot pronounce /r/ to save her life. Both of my grandparents grew up in Maine where that end sound is basically unheard of, unless you are from out of town. Don't ever go to Maine and ask for directions to Bar Harbor, it's Ba Haba!

  6. We went to Bar Harbor once, but fortunately we were in a rental car with a GPS so we did not need to ask anyone for directions.