Oberlin Blogs

Do I speak English?

October 30, 2016

El Wilson ’18

"What is your language called?" I was standing in my next-door neighbor's driveway last summer when their five-year-old son, who I often babysit, asked me this. At the time, I just laughed, told him "English. Just like you," and posted about it on Facebook. Recently, I've realized that this question acknowledges more than a little boy's developmental stage.

I have cerebral palsy, which means that around the time I was born, my brain was damaged and doesn't communicate with my body well. Cerebral palsy can mean drastically different things for different people, but for me it means that I spend most of my time in a manual wheelchair and don't talk normally. My voice is light and airy and lacks a bunch of sounds such as "s" and "r" and "ch." The words "kicking," "kitten," and "chicken" all come out exactly the same way. (I'm sure there are people who think I enjoy eating cats.) Most people understand me, but to varying degrees depending on how loud the room is, how well they're listening, or whether they have a knack for it.

This semester, I'm taking a course called Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology which has taught me more about language than any class ever has. Linguistic anthropologists study how language is actually used. One of the main points of the class is that "language" shouldn't be treated like a noun. Languages are not stable, object-like entities. Rather, they are a series of practices that people use to varying degrees. Essentially, most of us are "languaging" almost all of the time. When viewed this way, it's hard to picture any form of language more correct than any other form. Many people reading this post will assume that Standard American English is the right way to speak and that any other form of English, such as African American English or a strong southern accent, is wrong. Of course, this has a lot to do with the indexical associations (i.e. the association between certain gender/economic/racial/educational/etc. groups and their use of language) of these variations of English. Think about it. Most of the grammatical rules of English were created by old, white, middle class, able-bodied men. Why does this make them correct or even the default?

When language is viewed in this light, many ideas most of us take as common sense are just plain wrong. It becomes clear that spoken languages are not superior to signed languages, "they" can be used to refer to a singular person, and "ain't" is a word.

I spent most of my childhood being told that there was a correct and an incorrect way to speak. Some of this can be contributed to the fact that my father's mother was an English teacher and my father took his grammar lessons to heart. Most of this message, however, came from the various therapists and teachers attempting to "correct" my speech. I spent hours in speech therapy reading off of cards and failing to pronounce a wide variety of sounds. Most of this was done under the guise of making me understandable and therefore making my life less frustrating. However, I've found that people understand "three book" just as well as they understand "three books." Plus, I'm very rarely frustrated when someone doesn't understand me. If worst comes to worst, I can always write something down. It's more of a game than anything else. If I am annoyed, it's probably because I'm yelling something to my mom from the couch and her inability to understand means that I actually have to get up.

The only thing that deeply bothers me is how people treat me because of how I speak. Because of the indexical association people make between speech impairments and mental disabilities, I'm often talked down to or treated less than human. Random strangers have patted me on the head, like a dog. I don't know what I find more upsetting: the assumption that I am mentally disabled or that the way I'm treated is the way those with mental disabilities are treated. The time spent altering my voice never improved the way strangers treated me. By the time it was decided that there was nothing left that could be done, I started to feel that I was, in fact, less than.

The idea of my voice being inherently "incorrect" stuck with me all the way to college. I hated hearing my own voice. If someone played a recording of me speaking, I plugged my ears. This slowly has begun to change. For my Linguistic Anthropology class, we had to interview a classmate and transcribe it. Our goal was to represent exactly how we sounded as best we could without "correcting" any "errors." I dreaded this assignment from the first moment the professor announced it. I didn't want to know how "bad" I sounded and have to break it down sound by misspoken sound. My procrastination was even worse than usual.

When I finally sat down to do it, I found it painless. Not because I sounded "better" than I thought I would, but rather because, with the knowledge from class under my belt, I was able to break my speech down into its parts and make it mine. As I spoke, I wasn't making random "mistakes." My speech consists of altered words and inflections that embody a cohesive whole.

I still don't know how I would answer my little neighbor's question. I clearly don't speak Standard American English. But my linguistic anthropology class has taught me that it's okay. If we all had the same voice, the world would become a monotone mush. I'm sure that linguistic anthropologists weren't talking about cerebral palsy when they established that one variation of a language is no better than another; nonetheless the class has still had a profound affect on me. I now have the confidence to say:

"This is my voice. Eh is gust ath valid, thexy, and awethome ath yourths. There is nothin' wong with eh. Eh is a voice. And eh is mine."

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