Monday, March 12, 2012

Vocal Fry vs. Gortles

Z was waiting for me at pickup the other day with a big, saucy grin on her face. She held up the latest Scholastic book order and announced: “Justin Beaver is in here?…He’s HOT!”

In a sudden transformation as surprising to myself as to Z, Full Spectrum Mama turned into a fascist, super-conservative, sexist anachronism. I heard the following phrase burst from my formerly liberal lips: “You are! Five! Years! Old! Okay, Six! You will NEVER say that word again!”

My rule of fear and oppression complete, Z felt able to respond: “Um, okay Mom.” Eye roll.

Then, resisting the urge to prove that ***I*** am the one who knows not only how to Read but to correctly pronounce Justin Bieber’s name as well, I took a step back to dispassionately analyze my reaction.

The first language Z heard was the local dialect in Fuzhou (a.k.a. Linchuan), in Jiangxi province in China. I am sure she also heard some Mandarin (which I have continued to integrate into her life, though not as much as I’d like). Until she was almost ten months old, she’d never heard a word of English. Nonetheless, Z has been speaking it in complete sentences with perfect diction since she was 18-months old.

What is truly remarkable about her speech to me, though, is the apparent savviness of her tone. She comes across as authoritative yet casually chatty -- much like a clever, popular, connected teen. Perhaps the most obvious element of this mature tone is how she uses the ultimate tool of with it girls everywhere: vocal fry (, see also ( Vocal fry sounds rather like a crumpling up of the inquisitive at the ends of her sentences. It’s a mini-hipster-rumble that signifies at once being totally in-the-know and a lack of caring too much.

G rumbles when he talks, too. Because he has some low muscle tone, phlegm often catches in his throat when he speaks and he makes a slight gurgling sound behind his words. I call this “gortles,” as in, “Honey, clear your throat – ya got gortles.”

Low muscle tone also results in lax enunciation of many sounds. This, coupled with his unique cadence -- Pardner often notes how G “sounds like John Wayne” – makes G sometimes hard to understand, particularly for other children.

G has been receiving speech therapy through his school since he his IEP (Individualized Education Program) was initiated years ago. His speech therapist initially maintained that G would “never” make much progress in his speech. I have been able, however, using a rewards system that actually matters to him (pokemon cards), to ease him into the habit of pronouncing many sounds correctly and he has become much easier to understand.

Recently, our dear friends Shu Shu Chuck and Fern Ayi (Auntie [in Mandarin] Fern) came to visit us. They brought lovely educational gifts for the kids and spent lots of doting time with them. Fern Ayi, was even kind enough to get up before dawn with them (“Would it be okay with your mom if you got up?” “Yes!!!” [“No.”]) and feed them bottomless bowls of cereal.

At brunch on Sunday, Chuck noted that same John Wayne cadence to G’s speech. I immediately began to explain that we are working on his speech, that he has help at school and so on.

Chuck looked a little sad. “Why?” he asked. “Why try to change what is unique about him?” He said he thinks G is a “wonderful” kid just as he is and decried our culture’s tendency to try to make everyone the same, and to treat difference as if it is a sickness.

I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Without really considering my audience, I had been making my standard excuses, not really lies per se, but statements intended to placate others who may be critical -- when in fact I think G is PERFECT EXACTLY AS HE IS.

Now to give some legitimacy to Chuck’s words: he is none other than Chuck Hoberman (, an amazing inventor and brilliant thinker. Among other things, Chuck designs marvelous toys for curious people of all ages. I think his life and oeuvre give great weight to his contention that we should NOT necessarily try to “normalize” our children’s every atypical quality.

Speaking of normalization, if truth be told, I’d like to ease Z’s speech away from the conformi-cool area of the speech spectrum:

The other night, we went to the local cafĂ© for pizza night with another family. The sweet, smart mother of Z’s good friend brought her two girls - Z’s good friend and friend’s little sister. I brought along G’s best friend too, to be fair. (The injustice of unequal playdates is one felt and expressed powerfully across the FSM household spectrum.) The boys had their own table and the five of us girls sat at another.

I am always a tiny bit wary of consorting with intact (i.e. not gobsmacked by divorce) families who seem like “normal” people with seemingly neurotypical, psychotypical kids. I am well aware that “seem” may well be the operative word in most cases; also, the above describes most of my friends…I am just setting this story up here. Our family is blended in several more ways than average and I hope I may be forgiven a smidge of healthy, wholesome paranoia.

At the boys’ table, G was talking about one of his favorite subjects, marine biology. He kept referring to “aminals” and his friend would get frustrated and correct him. After resisting the urge for some time I finally butted in, letting G’s friend know that I thought saying “aminal” was “pretty darn cute.” He remained unconvinced. “I think it’s annoying,” he informed us. G’s face fell.

Over at the girls’ table, Z was holding up her knife and fork and looking through them to frame my face. Then, still looking at me, she began to move them around in a kind of criss-cross pattern. In her perfect, angelic, singsong voice, she began to sing a perfectly enunciated little tune: “Cut, cut, cut…Cut my mommy’s face.”

The mother, who was seated next to me, leaned in and asked, very quietly, “Does she have violent tendencies?”

At that moment, I wished for Z to be much, much less comprehensible.

Not for the first time, I found myself simultaneously
1. wishing two opposite things for my two dissimilar children: that G’s speech would be more clear and compelling, and that Z’s speech would be less clear and less compelling; and
2. wishing that in each case I wasn’t wishing what I was wishing.

Despite knowing it was a kind of funny situation, and even with all those nice people around me I felt very lonely just then.

Full Spectrum Mama


  1. My wonderful new friend Beverly, who has a 38-year old son with Asperger Syndrome (and who is having a hard time posting comments to this site)wrote this re: speech: "I have only average intelligence, but said 'aminal', 'effilant' and capitiller' for the longest time. I finally out-grew it wouthout need of speech therapy. My son was diagnosed 'Aphasic' as a two or three year-old (with a bunch of other labels). That means he used wrong or made-up words for things. An elevator was an 'uppy-downie' for example. He had years of speech therapy.

    Today, his syntax and vocabulary astound me. He reads the paper EVERY day, as well as some sports and current-music magazines; perhaps reading has helped.

    I believe he needed help with speech, I didn't...but we both grew out of it. Hang-on, girlfrien'!"

    1. Here's another thoughtful comment (sent by email) by another dear person who is having a hard time posting [**Any thoughts on technical matters would be appreciated!!**]:
      "My big question for you is why you feel you need to "socialize" your
      children, when it seems clear (as you acknowledge here in several
      ways) they will be socialized by their peers. If G's peers don't tell
      him something is annoying, then he's good to go (but maybe resentful
      you've been on his case all this time). If they do, and he cares, then
      he'll be intrinsically motivated to change it himself. Obviously this
      is something every parent must answer, I ask myself this question all
      the time. But I am curious about your rationale..."

      My response:
      I totally agree that in most cases children do get naturally socialized by their peers. My rationale with my gang has been that each of them has impediments (as usual, very different impediments!) to that natural socialization that will slow and possibly even prevent that natural process. Like you, I ask myself how far to go with this stuff. I am not sure chiming in when G's friend was getting annoyed was the right thing to do, for instance! I guess I just feel that my role should be to try to help each child's socialization BECOME more natural.

  2. Make no mistake, I completely understand the pressure to help your kid(s) conform to societal standards. You think, "well, it's better for them to learn it from me, gently lovingly." But then sometimes, especially if it's societal norms I don't agree with, I feel like an overseer, a traitor to my heart.

    So let's take an example from my life: I have to, as a white woman, prepare my multiracial child for the racism he will experience in the world. But it's not my job to do that by being racist to him, right? The best approach would be to arm him with knowledge and coping techniques. That sounds lovely, and probably the namby-pamby privileged approach I'll take.

    But, in families of color, where the stakes (of survival) are much clearer, more personal, more real - parents often become a kind of enforcer of racism. "To keep their child in line" because if they went out into the world and made a misstep - it could be the costliest mistake. So, for example, you see high levels of corporal punishment in African-American families, which is actually the sad legacy of slavery's brutality being perpetuated in the name of protecting children by preparing them for the white world.

      Yes!! : How Do we prepare our beautiful, tender children for racism? How Do we prepare them for the other forms of discrimination often visited upon those who are different and differently-abled?
      The one thing that comes to me right now is: honesty. That is why I will try to make it clear to them that I am telling them what is thought or done *in general* so that they will know, at least, what to expect. As a lifelong weirdo myself, I really, REALLY hear your point about becoming the oppressor! So - I will try to be frank: Table manners is a non-fraught example (I could probably write a book on this and will certainly write a blog!). I tell them that the really important manners are those that make people feel comfortable but that Just In Case they should know that they shouldn't lick their plates "in a fancy restaurant." But as I have written, it IS funny for me to be recommending conformity! More on this soon...

    2. Table manners is a great example.

      I'm a HUGE fan of manners and etiquette in general. Mostly because I had to teach them to myself as an adult. But at the same time, the process of "mannering" myself was also, sadly, a process of suppressing my true nature and heritage.

      I pretty much didn't eat with utensils before I was 10. If I think of it from an American perspective, I feel ashamed of that. But if I think of it as an expression of my Hindu roots, I am proud.

      There has to be some way to balance understanding/interacting with society while maintaining/celebrating the true self. Since I still struggle with this today, I'm not sure I can teach it. But I darn well can teach it better than I would have been able to 15 years ago.

      I guess if I think of this from a "cultural exchange" perspective, it seems more doable. If you consider the true self, or the quirky family, as a culture that needs to be maintained, even as you want the child to be able to interact with the dominant culture. People of color call this "code-shifting" - where they can switch rapidly back and forth from Spanish to English, or Ebonics to University English. That's the skill I want to encourage.

  3. Moxie's talking about some of the same issues today:

  4. And in more freaky synchronity-ness:

  5. To Elysia When I was eleven my brother and I were playing near some railroad tracks laying pennies and nickels on the rail right before the train would come. The train would flatten the coins turning them into collectibles worth more than their face value. After a morning of this kind of fun, we started hiking around the base of a sandy cliff while three kids above were throwing rocks at us. Always the diplomat, instead of running away I dragged my incredulous brother up that cliff and asked them why they were hurling rocks at us. Immediately my brother and I received cuts and bruises from a beating by these angry black teenagers. Upon returning home, my father consoled/counseled us that there is good and bad in all people and not to let this experience color our perception of people as a whole. And now, even though my father loves Rush Limbaugh and conservative values that make my fuzz stand on end, I love him for that moment and will never forget it

    1. That is a hilarious story, Pardner. You were a little sociologist!

  6. I hadn't heard of vocal sent me off on a link safari...I recognize that's not the point of the post...but I found it fascinating.

    1. Thanks, Jim W. - always up for an adventure here :)


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