“I couldn’t find the words” is a phrase we often use when our ability to speak falls short of what we want to express. Watching the inauguration, I was touched that three major participants, Joe Biden, the new president, Amanda Gorman, the first American youth poet laureate, and Brayden Harrington, a thirteen-year-old who read a passage from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, have all grown up with speech impediments. I wondered how their parents and teachers had helped them feel safe enough to speak before millions of people after bullies had teased them for their imperfect speech. Someone in their lives must have believed that they had important things to say.
Stutterers aren’t the only ones who have to struggle to make themselves understood. People with special needs, delays in speech development, and social anxiety can experience tremendous frustration trying to put their ideas into words. In addition, our society has traditionally believed that speaking “correctly articulated English” is the measure of a person’s intelligence or worthiness of belonging in the mainstream.
In the past, our public education system wouldn’t even allow bilingual children to speak their primary language at school. Children have been teased for speaking English with an accent. Native American children were stripped of their languages and even given new names at government-run boarding schools in order to Anglicize them.
Today we have a more enlightened perspective that speaking more than one language is a valued resource in our society, and that everyone’s way of communicating, no matter what their ability, is worthy of respect. I remember a mother calling her four-year-old aside after her daughter teased a Russian child about trying to find the words to communicate in English. “She’s not a baby. She’s learning two languages, and she’s very brave for speaking English when she's just learning.”
As parents and teachers, we want to nurture every child’s ability to feel safe to share what’s inside of them. We want to teach children to respond with understanding when someone is struggling to communicate. Each of us knows what it feels like to be at a loss for words, and we want to raise a new generation that applauds the bravery of trying to express what’s inside them even when it’s difficult.