It took me a while to understand the preciousness of communication and the beauty of being understood. It took watching two of the people I hold closest to my heart—my cousin Maddy and my brother Noah—struggle with endless frustration. Their divergent means of communication obstructed their thoughts, leaving friends and family guessing at their needs.
I was an only child for the first seven years of my life but the role of a sibling was filled by my little cousin, Maddy—my honorary brother. Some of my earliest and fondest memories with him include building forts and playing video games. We were often described as opposites. Maddy’s booming voice echoed through the house while I silently watched him sing to his favourite songs. He had a sense of confidence I craved. His humour and laughter made him stand out.
To the adults in the room, it was his speech impediment that stood out the most. As a child, it took me a while to notice. I understood him because I knew him, just like his mother understood him. I didn’t think much of the way that he spoke until after his tongue was fixed.
Tongue-tie, or ankyloglossia, is a physical abnormality where at birth an individual’s tongue is attached to the floor of the mouth, secured in place by the frenulum. Symptoms of tongue-tie typically arise early, for example, when an infant has trouble latching during breastfeeding due to the extra web of skin. Most infants have the extra web of tissue cut at birth; it’s something that nurses check for post-delivery. But nobody checked under Maddy’s tongue.
A tongue-tie doesn’t affect a child’s ability to learn language, but it does affect articulation. The tongue plays an important role in the way we speak, constantly moving, lightly tapping the back of your front teeth to pronounce “t”s and lifting to pronounce “r”s, as if by instinct. With ankyloglossia, the inherent movement of the tongue is restricted.
“You mean Noah?” my aunt Crissy asks, crossing her arms over her chest.
“No, Nora.” His nose scrunches as he closes his lips.
“Noah, like Dalainey’s brother?”
“No, Nora!” he says, louder this time, his voice filling the room.
Speech disorders are conditions where individuals have difficulties communicating speech sounds. There are a variety of types of speech impediments ranging in severity and origin. Some are present at birth, while others are developed.
A recurring stutter is a common speech impediment affecting the fluency of an individual’s idiom. Stutters can improve or worsen over the course of someone’s life. Some impediments may affect the pronunciation of certain sounds, such as a lisp. These are caused by the misplacement of the tongue during articulation. There is no eminent cause for a lisp, but years in speech pathology treatment as a child can ameliorate or eliminate it. Biological differences in the anatomy of the mouth — like the tongue, lips, or throat – can cause speech disorders. Cleft palate speech is a phenomenon similar to a lisp, caused by difficulties in articulation with a cleft lip. While most cleft lips are corrected in early childhood, they can still cause complications in speech development.
After years of misunderstandings as a result of his speech disorder, Maddy underwent a frenotomy. This procedure cuts the frenulum, the web of tissue holding the tongue to the bottom of the mouth, to allow his tongue to move freely. His tongue was unshackled, free of struggle.
In the following years, Maddy worked along side a speech language pathologist to correct the lisp he developed with his ankyloglossia. He was relieved that people finally understood him. After spending the first part of his life endlessly repeating himself, he could pronounce his “t”s and “r”s. With a bit of help, he was able to pronounce both “Noah” and “Nora”. Finally, Maddy gained his voice.
My seven-year-old self was not exhilarated by the thought of no longer being my parent’s only child. A diary entry, stolen by my parents from my second-grade journal, describes my early relationship with Noah. In my sparkly pink notebook, I scribbled in janky cursive:
I am so tired because I got no sleep. I got no sleep in the last week! The baby just cries and poops and eats and cries. And then he cries some more all through the night.
In his toddler years, my little brother made us laugh with words we thought he had made up, like many toddlers do while learning language. Once, at the mall, he saw a sweater he liked and described it as “froofry,” a word we still use in the family as a replacement to “fluffy.” The flexibility of language allowed us to understand what he meant and add a new silly word to our vocabulary.
At the time, we didn’t know the severity of his ear problems. In the first grade, my brother’s teacher recommended that my parents bring Noah to a speech language pathologist. There were delays in his speech development compared to other students in his class.
It is routine to have a hearing test with an otolaryngologist prior to an initial meeting with a speech pathologist. I remember Noah in his favourite Montréal Canadiens t-shirt sitting in what looked like a recording booth, wearing headphones the size of his head. After the hearing test, the otolaryngologist conducted a visual exam of his ear canal. Through the pediatric otoscope, he saw a ruptured eardrum covered in blood and wax obstructing his ear.
His ears were a problem through most of his language-learning years. He developed a speech impediment because he couldn’t properly hear the language stimuli around him. My brother relied primarily on reading our lips. His made-up vocabulary quickly became a sad reminder that he couldn’t hear our mother’s soft laughter or our father’s cheesy jokes. He was only mimicking the shapes of our mouths.
After his first ear treatment, Noah came home from school and made my mother cry. He asked us about sounds around the house that he had never experienced before. Sounds that we heard every day and brushed off—like the ticking of the grandfather clock in our dining room and the clicking his toy trains made as wheels travelled over tracks. He told us that he finally heard his teacher give a lesson at school. When we asked him what he thought his teacher was doing at the front of the class all day, he opened and closed his mouth like a doll without its ventriloquist.
Once we became aware of the severity of his ear condition, my brother took part in regular ear cleaning at a clinic and underwent a surgery called a myringotomy. When a child shows signs of impacted earwax and recurring infections, a doctor may recommend the placement of tubes in the ears. This is a process where a small hole is made in the eardrum and a tube is placed to equalize the air pressure between the middle and outer ear. This surgery helped reduce my brother’s production of wax and the frequency of his ear infections.
Soon after, Noah began regular sessions with a speech pathologist to correct the impediment he developed from his hearing impairment. I took part in his sessions and learned more about the construction of language. Watching the speech pathologist break down sounds and vowels motivated me to understand the connections between the biology of speech production and the ways that we portray our identity through language. While the speech pathologist taught my brother how to round his lips to vocalize the letter “b” by obnoxiously opening and closing her lip to emit the sound, I realized that I had no recollection of being taught how to do so myself.
I had never considered the influence that the anatomy of the ear had on the way that we learn language. To process speech, sound waves enter the ear and cause the eardrum to vibrate. This vibration is intensified by the ossicles, three tiny bones located in the middle ear which transmit to the cochlea. The cochlea, filled with liquid, alters the vibrations into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain through the auditory nerve.
I have also felt the vexations of being misunderstood. Growing up in a French-Canadian household in Toronto, my parents never encouraged me to learn English as a child. Why should I risk losing my language and culture if my friends and family were all French? My parents watched as their friends traded their Francophone-ness for English friends and English curricula, the pride in their shared culture diminishing.
My father especially encouraged me to keep up my French heritage. He spoiled me with French books and movies. He served me breakfast while I watched La Boîte à Lunch, my favourite Sunday morning cartoon on the French channel. I grew up in North York with the Don River as my backyard, and on walks by the water with my father we sang songs by Annie Brocoli. Over the Christmas holidays, our cozy apartment smelled of tourtière and traditional Quebécois sugar pies. The voice of French-Canadian icon Carmen Campagne brought us together for the season of giving.
I went to a French elementary school and spoke French with my friends, but I was still exposed to English. Anyone living in Toronto is exposed to the language through billboard advertisements and walking down the aisles in the grocery store. Most of my life, I knew Cinnamon Toast Crunch as Croque Crannelle; my language is proudly printed on every sugar-filled cereal box. Even now, I have the choice to experience most of my world in French.
Before I was old enough to go to school, my parents searched for a babysitter to take care of me through the day while they were at work. My parents entrusted me to an elderly couple, Nanny and Pop, looking for a friend for their toddler nephew. We bonded quickly and became part of each other’s family.
Nanny and Pop’s warm home in the suburbs of Toronto was where I was most exposed to English. Through spending my days with them, I picked up on some English, but I never seemed to hear them right. Before every meal, we would say the same prayer:
“God is good,
God is great,
Bless him for this food,
And my interpretation:
“God is good,
God is steak,
Spank him for my food,
Nanny and Pop were from Newfoundland and spoke a different dialect of English than the one I heard every day at the park. With strong linguistic influences from early English and Irish settlers, the geographical isolation of Newfoundland in relation to the rest of Canada has resulted in the preservation of a dialect entirely unique to the province. The features of Newfoundland English are reflective of Canada’s early history of colonialism.
A prominent difference between mainland Canadian and Newfoundland English lies in consonant variations, most noticeably dropping “r”s and pronouncing “th” as “d” or “t”. This, along with relying on words of Irish Gaelic origins, may be one of the reasons I never seemed to hear Nanny and Pop right.
I was happy with my French identity and, like my parents, saw no need to deepen my understanding of English beyond what I had learned by spending the day with Nanny and Pop. When my father transferred to Mississauga for work, I was enrolled in an elementary school within walking distance of the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). As a class, we often walked to the campus with our teacher and ate our lunch on the lawn by the Instructional Building while watching the Argos practice. Before then, I hadn’t really thought about university or what might come after high school. Being in an academic environment with next to no experience in English made me uneasy. I had always dreamt of thriving in a place like UTM: it was a place of knowledge and camaraderie. I realized that English might be an asset in the future and that I should focus on expanding my language abilities.
Once I finished the sixth grade, I transferred to an extended French middle school in the area, where half of my day was in French, and the other was in English. I had conversational English skills, but I felt lost in my first year at my new school . My classmates weren’t fluent enough in French to speak to me, and I wasn’t fluent enough in English to speak to them.
On occasion, my accent would slip, causing my cheeks to glow from embarrassment. Teenagers are critical, and I felt their eyes on me as I panicked in search of words I had not yet learned. I saw confusion twist their expressions as I stumbled over phrases. This, I assume, is the closest I will ever feel to what Noah and Maddy experienced.
Over the course of my life, I’ve been exposed to the power of language without acknowledging it. Language communicates our thoughts and desires and expresses our identities and lived experiences. Soon, I will graduate from UTM, having spent the past five years learning about physiological differences that affect speech, like my cousin Maddy’s ankyloglossia. I have learned about environmental conditions that can cause lisps like my brother Noah’s. My professors taught me how dialects can reflect our ancestral histories through language variations such as those spoken by Nanny and Pop. Standing with my diploma in hand, I will whisper “merci” to Maddy and Noah for revealing the preciousness of communication and guiding me to my passion for language.