The Kid’s Speech

in Features

Illustration by Sam Oldshue.

Wendy Marans’ name is a diagnostic test of sorts.

Section one, “wɛndi,” isn’t too hard. It can be broken down into five distinct sounds: /w/, /ɛ/, /n/, /d/, and /i/. They’re all articulated near the front of the oral tract, so the challenge is just remembering to connect the /n/ and /d/ consonant blends. Fortunately, the two phonemes don’t occur in distant sites of the mouth, which is the hardest part about other consonant blends like “gr” or “tw.” The “nd,” sound, in comparison, is manageable. Both /n/ and /d/ are produced by placing the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge, the front roof of the mouth that reminds Wendy of the bumpy ridges left on a beach when the tide goes out.

Section two, “mærənz,” gets trickier. With seven distinct sounds, an /r/ wedged in the middle, and a voiced /z/ fricative tacked onto the end, “Marans” is complex enough to give any child with a speech impediment some trouble. For these kids, Wendy’s surname easily becomes “Maranth,” “Mah-ens,” “Mawans,” or even “Mamem.” Some parents get tripped up too, incorrectly placing the emphasis on the second syllable: “Mar-ANS.” She’s heard almost every possible mistake. Maybe that’s why she just goes by Wendy.

———

Wendy’s bubblegum-pink lips curl into a taut frown as she checks the time. Her watch stopped last week and though it’s now ticking again, she has been eyeing her wrist sporadically, as if always running a moment late. Her first afternoon appointment doesn’t begin for thirty minutes, but it’s time for her to start rearranging the room.

The next client is one of her tallest, so Wendy heaves the table onto its side and goes about shifting the length of each of its four legs. Wendy’s heels slip out of her shoes as she fidgets with the squeaky pegs, but she declines my offer to assist her. She’s accustomed to performing this manual task solo. But I also get the sense that she doesn’t trust me to do it carefully enough—or simply as carefully as she will.

After double-checking the notches in each leg, Wendy screws the pegs in place—a few inches higher than they were before. Her carefully-groomed bangs are left slightly disheveled, and I can’t help but wonder if the ritual, which she repeats several times a day, is actually necessary. Yet after four decades of working as a pediatric communication disorders specialist, Wendy insists on this level of precision.

The laminate blue-and-grey table is the home base of Wendy’s lessons. It’s where they all begin, with Wendy sitting diagonally from each child, and where Wendy tries to end each hour-long session, though her youngest patients have a habit of wandering. It’s where Wendy conducts intakes to suss out articulation difficulties, where she runs repetitive speech exercises and plays purposeful games when the children grow tired of these exercises, and ultimately, where most of her breakthroughs happen. But if the table is too tall, the child’s neck will strain upwards and he may not be able to see; too short, and he’ll slouch. Wendy even customizes the size of the plastic school chairs that circle the table so each child can firmly plant his or her feet on the floor. Teaching someone to communicate is not a one-size-fits-all project.

There are no diagrams of the oral tract or pamphlets about communication disorders displayed in Wendy’s office, a one-room private practice she opened in 1997. Toys and games are Wendy’s tools, each serving a distinct pedagogical purpose. A glittery pinwheel helps children practice the controlled breath release necessary in strident sounds; glossy plastic microphones coax mumblers into projecting. Wendy keeps the beige walls sparsely decorated to avoid distractions. On the window ledge by her desk sit a model wooden train and a miniature metal toboggan. When Wendy knows a client is particularly fond of vehicles, she usually remembers to preemptively hide them. Incorporating a child’s interests into a lesson plan is one thing, Wendy once explained, but carelessly leaving a toy within reach is asking for a disturbance in the kid’s focus, or even a tantrum. Behind Wendy’s desk, pristine glass windows span the entire northern side of the office. Last fall, after a gust of wind once derailed her train of thought, Wendy glanced toward the windows and remarked that they were the most beautiful, and worst, part of her office.

On Wendy’s old website, below her educational training and professional experience, appeared a bullet-pointed list of her extracurricular passions: Cello, Flamenco, Quilting. (The page has since been taken down.) Wendy handmade the office’s only notable décor—a large multicolored quilt that hangs by her desk—but she repeatedly stresses to me that she has made better quilts. She keeps this flawed one on display only so that she can point to something when children make mistakes, something that shows she makes mistakes too.

“They’re made to be squares and top right yellow one isn’t,” Wendy says, gesturing toward one of the two hundred and ten patches as if it’s the first thing I would notice. The top right yellow one hadn’t caught my eye, but when I walk closer, I see Wendy’s right. I never would have recognized the error—the patch is only slightly rectangular.

For most people, developing one’s voice and ability to communicate is something that just sort of happens. But Wendy works with kids for whom that doesn’t naturally occur—kids whose capacity to verbally express themselves isn’t inborn, but needs to be taught to them. This thing that most people take for granted, speech, is incredibly complex, Wendy says. So maybe this care—her insistence on adjusting the table by several inches, or hanging a near-perfect quilt as an example of a mistake—is necessary.

Wendy’s natural speaking voice is crisp, potent, and unmistakably British. Having been raised and schooled in England, Wendy talks with broad vowels and delicately discards her /r/ sounds, letting them slip just before they settle on the tongue. Her specific dialect, Received Pronunciation, is untraceable to any physical region or socioeconomic class. Wendy attributes her speech to her grandmother, who, as a young woman, swore off the Derbyshire parlance—a regional giveaway of her own humble beginnings. Besides a couple adolescent nieces who’ve acquired the “Mockney” dialect—a middle-class London trend that began during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership—everyone in Wendy’s family still speaks with Received Pronunciation.

In conversation, Wendy’s rich tone is almost melodic, bouncing between syllables like notes, performing dynamic intervals with each clause. Her cadence could dwell within the five lines of a treble clef. When she reaches the end of a sentence, or wants to emphasize a point, she slows her pace and chews on her words, letting them resonate one by one. “I think…it’s a…trahhhgedy,” she said once, describing other foreigners’ tendency to lose their accents after years in the United States.

It’s easy to catch yourself intensely listening to Wendy—not explicitly because of what she’s saying, but because of how good she sounds saying it. And the primrose hue of her lips, a staple which somehow always looks both girlish and elegant on Wendy, is perhaps her voice’s most effective billboard. Listen to me, it says. Watch what’s happening here.

Otherwise, Wendy’s physical presence is fairly unimposing. She has a small, slender frame, and the child-sized seat in which she conducts lessons never looks as miniature as it seems like it should. She regularly joins patients on the matted blue carpet of her office—sometimes to lie horizontally and use gravity to urge a child’s tongue to fall backward; other times, simply to conduct a lesson on the floor if an uncooperative student strays from the table. At the end of eight-hour days, Wendy’s hands still flutter with sweeping gestures as she speaks, and her patient, lupine eyes blink with purpose.

With ten minutes remaining before the appointment, Wendy agrees to show me the last unseen area of her office: the closet. Behind a locked wooden door, opaque plastic bins, phonetic diagnostic tests, and niche speech and language-related games are tightly packed from the floor to the ceiling, like a game of Tetris.

“Wow,” I exhale. “There are so many…”

Wendy stares into the closet and blinks, as if she’s unsure whether my comment was a compliment or a criticism. I scramble to clarify what I meant, but Wendy finds the words faster than I do.

“It’s actually very organized,” she says. And then she shuts the door.

———

When I first met Wendy roughly sixteen years ago, I was an extroverted kindergartener with a spitty interdental lisp, biting softly on my tongue with each /s/, and the inability to pronounce my own name.

Section one, æntoniə, wasn’t an issue. The hardest part of my first name is just remembering to connect the /n/ and /t/ sounds, but my parents had always called me Anna anyway, voiding the issue of the consonant blend. Section two, ɛɪrz brɑʊn, was my trouble spot, and until I began working with Wendy, I proudly introduced myself as Anna Ayrethhh-Brown to everyone I met.

I don’t remember much about our weekly lessons besides the fact that Wendy rewarded me with Cheerios and M&Ms for maneuvering my tongue against the alveolar ridge. She was similar back then—same office, same lupine eyes, same melodic tones—and she taught me to fix my speech impediment by looking, listening, and imitating her, just as my older brother, Henry, had already done with her.

Henry’s challenges were more debilitating than mine. As he entered elementary school, both his /r/ and /s/ phonemes were unintelligible, which fractured his ability to communicate with peers, teachers, and our parents. My mother still winces whenever she recalls one evening when Henry asked her to read him a story before bed. Because of Henry’s /r/ and /s/ omissions, she heard him ask for a “toy,” and scolded him for trying to play so late at night. Henry, desperate to be understood, whined in frustration, “No, Mom! A toe-ey!”

Henry began speech therapy with Wendy in kindergarten and continued until his /s/ and /r/ sounds improved. Other facets of his impediment, like substituting “ch” sounds for “sh,” persisted well into middle school. This impairment presented itself most overtly on Sundays, when Henry would gab about singing in “shursh.” At our school’s annual book swap, where used titles could be traded for tokens called “chits,” Henry’s classmates mocked him for confidently announcing how many “shits” he had collected.

My family’s history with speech impediments, however, predates both Henry and me. When my father was a child, he never mastered his “s” and “th” sounds. Speech therapy was well out of my grandparents’ financial means, so my father learned to mask these insecurities by slowing his speaking pace around certain hazardous words. As an adult, he still avoids “ths”—months, truths, myths.

Last year, after I began reporting this profile and researching speech therapy, I sat my father down for an impromptu diagnostic test.

“Say ‘anesthesia,’” I instructed.

Anesthesia,” he copied back. No trouble.

“Okay,” I said. “Say ‘cloths.’”

Closs.”

“No. Cloths,” I repeated.

Closth.”

Betrayed by his tongue, he shrugged and left the room, revealing the boy in him I’ve rarely seen—the boy who never got help with his articulation, the boy who would right that wrong by sending both of his children to speech therapy one day. Later, when I asked my mother what she knew about his ambiguous impediment, I learned that when my parents were deliberating baby names for me, my mother’s top choices included “Martha” and “Lilith.” My father vetoed both.

In a home video that often makes its rounds during family reunions, I’m five years old and still unaware of my lisp. I stride into the frame and begin to sing: “Little Jackie Paper loved that rathcal puff, and brought him thtrings and thieling wakth, and other fanthy thhhhtuff!”

Interdental /s/ sounds now feel foreign in my mouth, and I don’t think of my speech patterns as anyone’s but my own, but I sometimes wonder whether lispy tones would still feel foreign if I had never met Wendy—or whether I would have ended up an adult, vetoing baby names like my father did. Sarah. Silas. Spencer. Susannah. Sebastian.

———

In the opening scene of The King’s Speech, the 2010 film about George VI’s journey to overcoming his stutter, an unnamed speech pathologist fills the king’s mouth with glass marbles and instructs him to enunciate several words. Later in the film, Lionel Logue, the Australian-born elocutionist who ultimately succeeds in improving the stammer, leads the king in a myriad of other unconventional speech exercises: rolling log-style across a dusty carpet, swinging his arms like a windmill, lying down and breathing deeply while the queen sits on his diaphragm. At one point, as King George practices yelling “Ahhh” for fifteen uninterrupted seconds, Logue chimes in above the din: “Anyone who can shout vowels at an open window can learn to deliver a speech!”

Since the movie’s release in 2010, speech therapists like Wendy have become used to answering questions about the film, which brought the discipline of speech pathology into the public eye. And though most say that the techniques shown in The King’s Speech are outdated by contemporary standards, the film captures a fundamental part of the field’s history: its roots in elocution.

During the late 18th century, generations before King George VI assumed the throne, the study of elocution and oratory gained widespread popularity in England. Soon after, the movement migrated to the United States, where writers began studying elocution for individuals with communication disorders. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, founded Boston’s “School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” in 1872, which specialized in speech instruction for deaf pupils. By 1887, there were 1,646 self-proclaimed elocutionists working in the United States.

It was not until the early twentieth century, however, that speech correction evolved into a discipline distinct from elocution. In 1922, Sara Stinchfield Hawk became the first American to receive a doctorate in Speech Pathology. And in 1937, Robert West, who served as the first president of the American Speech Correction Association, published The Rehabilitation of Speech. The classic text is still in print today, and West is known to many as the founding father of speech pathology in the United States.

Wendy’s discipline has grown to address myriad speech and language difficulties over the past century. Some speech therapists work primarily with transgender people, assisting in the transition process and highlighting the rhythmic and intonational differences between most men’s and women’s speech patterns. Other pathologists specialize in post-surgical voice therapy for thyroid and laryngeal cancer patients, or work with individuals after strokes and traumatic brain injuries. Pediatric therapists, like Wendy, treat articulation-related impediments, phonological disorders, and other language and communication difficulties.

Roughly 8 percent of young children in the United States have a speech disorder. By the time kids reach first grade, the prevalence of speech impediments falls to 5 percent. Still, only half of affected kids receive intervention services from speech therapists. The U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2016 that there are roughly 145,000 speech-language pathologists in the United States. A reported 43 percent of these therapists work in schools, but they’re often overworked with heavy caseloads—and children with minor but consequential articulation impediments can fall to the wayside.

When Wendy was a young girl, she once gushed to her parents, “Wouldn’t ‘Multitudes’ be a wonderful name for a boy?’”

Now 62, Wendy is unsure where she developed her fascination with speech and language. She often cites the influence of her father, who read Winnie the Pooh to her at bedtime and assumed perfectly suited voices for each of the book’s characters. As Wendy matured, she began experimenting with different accents as well, and quickly noticed she had a knack for impersonating regional English dialects. In late elementary school, after meeting a Scottish girl and her family on vacation, Wendy briefly abandoned her Received Pronunciation for a Scottish brogue.

A decade later, Wendy found herself 19 years old and living with her parents after dropping out of a university program in Hotel Management. In an attempt to keep her daughter occupied, Wendy’s mother suggested she shadow the speech therapist in Bedford. Over several days, Wendy traveled from appointment to appointment with the pathologist and listened to her deconstruct speech with mind-boggling specificity. Wendy witnessed the complexity of children’s communication difficulties and came to believe—for the first time in her life—that speech patterns could be built.

For Wendy, it was a life-changing revelation. She immediately enrolled at the National Hospital’s College of Speech Sciences. After receiving her bachelor’s, she worked as a speech pathologist in London for seven years, and then returned to The Institute of Neurology to complete a one-year intensive master’s program.

During this time, Wendy met “an American”—the most specific she gets when referring to her ex-husband—with whom she moved to the United States in 1984. The couple settled in Connecticut and raised two sons. The kids have their father’s accent.

Now, Wendy is a member of both the American Speech–Language–Hearing Association and the Connecticut Speech–Language–Hearing Association. She sometimes attends ASHA’s annual convention, which regularly attracts nearly fifteen thousand speech-language pathologists, but last year she opted out. “I’m very…picky,” she once confessed to me before correcting herself. “There are certain people I really want to hear.”

What Wendy genuinely cares about is the science of phonetics and linguistics as it pertains to communication. Spoken language can be broken down into several units—sentences, words, syllables, and, at its most deconstructed level, phonemes. There are forty-four phonemes in the English language, twenty-four of which are consonants (which challenge children more often than vowels). These two dozen consonantal phonemes make up roughly 62 percent of English speech, and can be categorized by their voice, manner, and place.

Voice refers to whether the vocal folds vibrate or not when producing a noise. Because of this distinction, the same physical movements in the oral tract can produce different sounds, such as /s/ and /z/, or /p/ and /b/. Manner, on the other hand, describes how air is released when making a sound. Plosive consonants, like /p/ and /t/, are characterized by full blockage of the airstream, followed by a quick release of air. Fricative consonants, including /f/ and /v/, create a hissing-like tone by releasing air through a tight opening.

Lastly, place describes where a phoneme occurs within the scope of the oral tract. Bilabial consonants, /p/, /b/, and /m/, are articulated between the lips. Labiodental consonants, /f/ and /v/, manifest when the bottom lip touches the upper incisors. Dental consonants, like the voiceless “th” sound in “thin,” are made by extending the tongue tip slightly between the upper and lower incisors. Alveolar consonants, such as /t/, /d/, and /s/, occur when the tongue blade is raised to the alveolar ridge. The glottal consonant /h/ occurs when the vocal folds do not vibrate but are close enough to produce friction as air is exhaled. The list goes on.

A properly trained speech pathologist, Wendy says, should be able to transcribe any consonant, vowel, or diphthong by ear—and identify its voice, manner, and place. One of Wendy’s biggest complaints about her field is how underappreciated this scientific part goes, and how frequently acquaintances—the same kind that ask about The King’s Speech—confuse speech pathology with the less-scientific discipline of elocution. “When I was starting out, people heard you were a speech therapist and they would go, ‘How now brown cow,’” Wendy once remarked, rolling her eyes.

———

Wendy points to her lips, painted her signature pink. “Are these two the same or different?” she asks, adopting a hard American /r/ for the session. “Arr…arr…arr. Arrarrarr.”

The five-year-old boy sitting at the table, Samuel, tucks his chin and continues twisting his yellow rain boots around the legs of his chair. (To protect the child’s privacy, Samuel is a pseudonym.) He starts to pick at the Wallingford Police Station temporary tattoo that’s been on his arm for ten days.

Wendy tries again. “What part of my mouth is mostly moving? Arrarrarr.

Samuel started attending weekly lessons with Wendy in the spring of 2017. When they first began, he had a medley of severe articulation issues: he struggled with the strident system, which includes sounds like “sh” and “ch”; he displayed non-rhotacism, omitting his “r” sounds; and he substituted “th” for “f,” expressing his characteristically good manners with “please” and “fank you.” Many speech therapists wait until a child is eight years old to treat these issues, as there’s a chance they’ll resolve naturally, but Samuel persuaded Wendy with his eagerness and aptitude. At their first lesson, when Wendy asked him why he thought they were meeting, Samuel was certain. “I’m here so you can teach me to say ‘shursh,’” he said, unknowingly echoing my brother.

Samuel has since improved his strident sounds and learned to articulate “r” at the end of words, but he still can’t isolate his tongue on r-initial words like “rat,” or r-remedial words like “carrot.” Wendy hopes that “Arrarrarr” will push Samuel to articulate the “r” sound before a vowel, but his lips have a habit of rounding into the “w” shape when he doesn’t pause between each “r.”

Samuel finally tilts his head back in frustration, shakes his bronze curls, and howls. “Arr! Arr! Arr!” Not quite. Wendy furrows her eyebrows and playfully corrects him: “That sounds like a hiccupping seal.”

After twenty years of running her private practice, Wendy rarely encounters articulation issues that she doesn’t know how to fix, once she has cracked what she calls the child’s “systematic error code.” For almost any common problem like a lisp or non-rhotacism, Wendy knows a set of strategies—some technical and some not-so-technical—that she uses until she identifies one that works best. When she first started working with Samuel last spring, Wendy began with her usual technique: make a long “ee” and imagine the tongue is glued to the palate but allowed to slide from front to back. As the tongue moves backward in the mouth, “ee” becomes “eer.”

This visual didn’t work with Samuel—he couldn’t move his tongue without rounding his lips—so Wendy shifted to a less mechanical approach: do a seal impression. Samuel correctly articulated an “r” on his first try.

Between their weekly sessions, Samuel frequently practices speech exercises for fun, which Wendy says is practically unheard of. His r-final word articulation has now improved to the point that he corrects Wendy when she forgets her affected American /r/. Wendy recognizes the irony in teaching children a speech pattern that she does not share, but her accent doesn’t undermine her effectiveness, she says. If anything, it makes the children’s final /r/ sounds, though systematically constructed, more their own.

“I say to them, ‘You’ll be better at this than I am,’” Wendy tells me after Samuel’s session wraps up. “And they are, by the time they finish.”

———

A week later, Samuel’s Wallingford Police Station tattoo, now seventeen days out, has peeled to only a grey penumbra of a crest. He practiced “Arrrarrrarrr” at home this week, and Wendy thinks he’s ready for full r-initial words. She pulls out a page scattered with terms: rope, road, read, ring, rag, rat, red, rip, rug, run.

Wendy has scrupulously sketched a picture beside each word to provide a visual cue. The hand-drawn illustrations strike me like Wendy’s micro-adjustment of the table, but this time, I trust that whatever energy and attention she put into them is necessary. That maybe, one day, they’ll be a part of why Samuel won’t have to dodge words with perilous r sounds or veto baby names of his own.

Samuel and Wendy take turns pointing to a picture and reciting the corresponding word. When Samuel’s lips begin to round, Wendy gently rests her palm against his lower lip.

In a moment between drills, Samuel spots old papers protruding from Wendy’s case binder. “That’s from when you couldn’t say ‘church,’” Wendy says. Samuel clicks his tongue indignantly.

“I can say it!” he retorts. “Churrrrrrrrrrch.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is a senior in Saybrook College.

1 Comment

  1. What a perceptive piece, instructive while shedding light on the author’s personal history. I finished the piece filled with admiration for Wendy’s patience and sensitivity to the complex world of children,
    Beautifully organized and written.

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