Yabber Yabber Yabber

Saturday, 7 March 2009

How a young boy began to speak

When we first came to Beijing, our two-year-old son Riley didn’t talk much. His comprehension also seemed shady, so we hired a wonderful Western speech therapist, who gave us a full assessment on his capabilities. Via this assessment, she told us that at our son was linguistically compromised and that therapy should be started immediately to rectify any impairment to his future development.

Needless to say, the anguish my husband and I went through over this diagnosis was unparalleled. Had we failed Riley? Had we caused this terrible problem by talking too much or too little? Was bringing him to China where English saturation is so compromised a vast mistake? What would it mean for his future? His intelligence? His education? This speech-deficit time was terrifying for us – a time when nothing but the worst scenario seemed foremost in our minds.

So we put him into a year of speech therapy despite Other People saying “he’s just a boy, boys learn to speak more slowly, give him time” and despite this therapist’s books being jam-packed with a clientele that was ninety percent boy.

During this year, there were minor improvements – most of them actually occurring after a visit to Australia where he was surrounded by English-speaking people. Thinking that maybe English-saturation was the way, we also decided to put him into school at just two-and-a-half years old, hoping the peer language exposure would help. We read to him until the pages bled. We flashed flash cards and spoke like Teletubbies. We did everything we could to help our son, but his improvement was, nonetheless, slow.

Although we had no doubt the speech therapy had some impact, and while I fully support this kind of therapy in general, it did cross my mind more than once that Riley was not really “linguistically compromised” – perhaps he was just going to be a slow learner when it came to speech. Or maybe oration was just not going to be one of his fortes, like mathematics is not mine, or baking cookies is not my husband’s. Our son’s other more physical skills were all highly developed and often well above his peers. Maybe, just maybe he was not “delayed” and was just taking his time with the verbal factor.

It was very much a time of Maybes.

During this horrible Maybe time, my very down-to-earth mother-in-law would intersperse the terror with well-placed words of wisdom. Statements like “Oh for goodness sake, leave him alone. He’s a boy! He’s more focused on mud and footballs. He’ll be fine. He will develop at his own pace. Don’t rush him. You wait and see – he will be a public speaker or even Prime Minister [of course] one day.”

It’s easy to dismiss such wisdom when it comes from someone so close and who so badly wants the best for her grandson. But I didn’t. Amidst the all-encompassing fear, I did listen to her. I still did what was expected of me as a responsible mother – I did everything in my power to ensure Riley had the appropriate stimulation that could help him improve (what other choice did I have?) but I also listened to my mother-in-law. I heard her. And deep, deep down, amongst the devastation and doubt, I began to believe her.

I consulted my friends – and came up with a dozen women who were also sharing similar fears over their sons, most of them speech and comprehension-based. Is it a coincidence that so many boys experience the same phenomenon? It is also a coincidence that so many children (girls included) experience speech delays when exposed to so many languages at once, as is the expat way? We may only be exposed to two languages in our house, but I know of many children living in Beijing who are consistently exposed to three, four or more languages in their every day lives. Research tells us that multi-lingual children often speak later than their peers, as their little minds are so busily (and awe-inspiringly) sorting through the varying linguistic genres.

I also consulted my sister-in-law, who is a child psychologist, about Riley. She asked me this question – “What is your gut feeling? In all my years dealing with mothers, I have not once known a mother’s gut feeling to be wrong. Do you think there is anything wrong with him?” My answer (hopefully unclouded by wishful thinking) was categorically “No”. I did indeed feel he was slower at speech and comprehension, but I truly didn’t feel there was a “problem” with our son or that he was mentally compromised or developmentally delayed. There were no other “signs” that ever lead me to believe this, and trust me, I was wide open to them, searching for them even. So, even when I was entrenched in the professional and lay opinions of Everyone Else (and my Lord, there are many with an opinion), I could still see through it all, and believe my son would be okay.

What a difference three years makes. Riley's speech has blossomed like a flower and although he struggles a little with grammatical structure, he has definitely joined the “Five Year Old Ceaseless Verbal Diarrhoea Club” that his sister joined at age two. He is also (and I write this with tears of pride), the top reader in his grade. Who’da thunk it?

Thank you, Granny.

First published on the City Weekend Beijing website.

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