“The erroneous theory is: to speak is to understand. Tell that to Stephen Hawking”
Take a moment to say this sentence aloud. “The bird is blue.” Effortless, right? Now, humor me here, touch the roof of your mouth with your tongue and do not move it. Now, try saying the sentence again. It may sound something like, “Du ber issh bu.” Still somewhat intelligible? Do you think someone would know what you were saying? Ok, last one. This time close your mouth. Don’t move your jaw, lips, or tongue. “Mmm ggg ii ggg.” At this point you may be amused (or irritated) by this exercise.
“Why are you asking me to do this, RAZ?”
For a moment try to imagine what it would be like to not be able to articulate a thought. “The bird is blue,” you say in your mind. Maybe you can even see the words, but when you send the command to your mouth, it has no intentions of complying with your request. Replace that innocuous statement with something more poignant like, “I’m hungry.” Or, “The secret of the universe is….” Or perhaps even more disconcerting, “Help me!”
I asked you to humor me in an attempt to simulate what it would be like to not be able to speak. Most of us who have the incredible ability to produce speech take it for granted. We rarely take a moment to realize just how incredibly intricate and profound the act of speaking really is.
You have a thought. Then you move your lips, tongue, jaw, and vocal chords while still maintaining a consistent breath with the correct intonations. Once the noises are coming out of your body, you are able to identify that that is you speaking. Then, as if through magic, a person listening (after equally amazing processing) now has that thought or at least a version of it in their mind, as described in an article from 2011. Speech is one of the quickest and most efficient methods of communication.
“But, RAZ, aren’t speech and communication the same thing?”
If you’ve ever watched a political debate you know the extent to which someone can produce speech but not communicate a thought. We all know someone who speaks endlessly, but never communicated a thing. Communication, from the Latin work communicare meaning ‘to share’, is defined as “the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, written or behavior.” Notice how speech is the first example. Speech is defined as “the vocalized form of human language,” and “the expression of or the ability to express thoughts and feelings by articulate sounds.” So, speech is a form of communication, but not all communication occurs via speech.
As a (spoken) language driven species, we associate intelligence with one’s ability to convey a thought, typically through speech. We put such a strong emphasis on speech that we sometimes assume if someone does not speak, there is some sort a cognitive disability as opposed to some sort of motorial, output disability, such as in the case of those who have had a stroke or have a developmental disorder like autism.
Ido Kedar, a young man diagnosed with autism is non-verbal. Experts assumed he was mentally retarded. He began communicating when he was seven years old, eventually learning to using a letter board, pointing at each letter one at a time. Once the doors of communication had been opened, the eloquence, intensity, and maturity of his words was beyond what anyone could have imagined. From mentally retarded to published author.
Next time you let your lips flap and next time you catch yourself talking but not saying anything, take a moment to acknowledge what an amazing gift and ability that is. I will let Ido close this out.
“The truth is that much of what people say is meaningless. They instantly say what comes into their head. Their lack of working on their thoughts makes their thoughts unfocused. It’s not only a curse to be quiet, it’s a blessing of thinking inside and saying what is important, so a bad thing may be an opportunity too,”- Ido Kedar, Ido in Autismland (age 13)
Photo: Flickr, Caneles
Houde, J., & Nagarajan, S. (2011). Speech Production as State Feedback Control Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00082
Uecker, M., Zhang, S., Voit, D., Karaus, A., Merboldt, K., & Frahm, J. (2010). Real-time MRI at a resolution of 20 ms NMR in Biomedicine, 23 (8), 986-994 DOI: 10.1002/nbm.1585
This post was written by RAZ: Rebecca A. Zarate