A distressed older man has coherent thoughts coming on one side but is unable to speak coherently on the other side - the straight "thoughts and "words" come out broken and twisted up.

When Words Fail: Overcoming Communication Issues

"It's on the tip of my tongue."

Do you ever get that “word is on the tip of your tongue” feeling? Or, you go to speak and something entirely different than what you intended to say comes out? “Word vomit.”

Do you ever forget a word or check it in the dictionary to make sure you’re using a word correctly? We trip on our own tongues. We stammer and stutter. We struggle to convey with our mouths what is in our heads and hearts.

Communication is lost in translation

Typing out our thoughts in emails or texts can be even worse. Meaning is lost. Words are misinterpreted or misconstrued. Without the sound of someone’s voice or tone or inflection, one sentence can mean very different things to readers.

I remember sitting in an in-service for our elementary school a few years ago. The speaker brought up the notion that emphasizing any given word in a sentence could drastically alter the meaning of the sentence. The sentence the speaker gave was, “She didn’t sharpen my pencil.” Now, I won’t dissect it into every possible combination, but if you say, “SHE didn’t sharpen my pencil.” then you insinuate it wasn’t her who did the sharpening, but someone else. If you say, “She didn’t sharpen MY pencil.” then a listener would gather that “she” sharpened someone’s pencil, but not mine.

How does aphasia feel?

There are so many nuances in language that we don’t often think about. I know that I can speak with a certain intention. If I’m not careful, that meaning and intention are completely lost in my poor choice of words.

Now, imagine for a second not having a choice of words. Imagine words not coming. Imagine completely unrelated words being substituted for others. Imagine thinking you are saying one string of words, and something entirely different is coming out of your mouth. Imagine thinking there must be something wrong with everyone around you because they suddenly can’t understand you anymore. Or, imagine realizing that everyone is looking at you like you have three or heads or giving you a dog-like sideways glance. Welcome to my Daddy’s world.

He spoke his mind until he couldn't

Daddy was a guy who never had a problem saying precisely what he thought. Words came freely, whether they were sweet and silly or fiery and mad. That was true for most of his seventy-plus years. That all came to a screeching halt in the fall about five years back. A massive brain hemorrhage left him with dementia and aphasia.

Daddy didn’t stop talking, but we had to make some major adjustments to glean meaning from his words. His sentences became rambling and disjointed. He said words we never even knew he’d heard. The combinations were even stranger. He substituted some words for others entirely, or would call people by their physical attributes or where they lived rather than their names. We needed a translator for a language that no one else in the world spoke.

Learning to communicate through language barriers

Over the last several years, I’ve taught several students who came into our Tennessee school system speaking Arabic. They picked up English very quickly, but for the first little while communication was always hard.

I speak English. I can muddle through some Spanish, if forced, but I knew absolutely no Arabic words. I used apps to translate what I could for them, but a lot of our communication boiled down to me gesturing, pointing to things on their computer screens, and watching for nods or recognition in their eyes.

The same became true with Daddy. He was no longer speaking our language. Body language became so important. You could tell from a mile away how he felt though. We were met with a big, goofy grin and waving arms or crossed arms and a grimace. Those things conveyed more than words ever could. We also listened to his inflection and lilt. We knew whether to nod along or look disgusted along with him even if we didn’t understand his new language. We still knew if he was mocking his sister by the voice he put on, even if the words and letters within them were rearranged.

The language of empathy is universal

So, if you ever find yourself in our shoes with a parent who has speech impairments or if you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t speak your language, remember this. If you’re human, you know how awful it feels to be misunderstood. You know how aggravating it is when your words fail or you can’t get your point across. You know how anxious that “tip of your tongue” feeling can make you.

You may not understand everything, but you can understand something. If you can’t understand anything else, you can understand mood and react with empathy. Make sense of what you can and reciprocate. That’s all anyone really wants anyway. Validation. To be heard. To be seen. To be understood.

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