As anyone who has studied a language other than their mother-tongue knows, learning to hear and speak a language is easier than attempting to understand its grammar from a textbook or memorizing long vocabulary lists. You and I learned to speak our mother-language long before we learned to read or write or study grammar.
I began to speak before my first birthday. My first words were, “Hi tid!” in imitation of my adult cousin’s “Hi, kid!”
I ultimately learned to speak not only English but also Indonesian and Ekari, the later a New Guinea tribal language. I have had, I suppose, millions of verbal interactions in all three of those languages.
But now, as a result of ALS, it is very difficult for me to speak with enough clarity for others to understand me, no matter what language I choose.
It has happened quickly over the past 2-3 months. The response I usually get now is, “I’m sorry. I just can’t understand you.” Or, “Ruth, can you help me understand what Ken is saying?!”
It is very frustrating! But it is also amusing. Often I get a blank look—just as I would if I spoke English while attempting to buy a chicken in a marketplace in rural China! Other people look away, as if I was not speaking at all. And some, knowing I cannot speak, simply ignore me altogether.
I have an iPad-mini on which I can draw, type, or have it speak what I’ve typed. But this takes so long that if two or three others are present, the conversation quickly moves on. What I’ve typed out by then is irrelevant.
To save time I spell out words on my arm or thigh or on the side of a Kleenex box I always have on my lap. You’d be surprised how many people cannot focus on any word containing five or more letters! Or when I draw the letter “w” will say “b” or “k”! Yikes! What dummies!
Several months ago we were visited by several friends, who, after the usual greetings, simply ignored me. The women started a conversation with my wife, Ruth, as one of the men picked up a magazine and started to read while the other gazed out the window at Lake Rousseau. I moved around in my wheelchair, hoping that a closer proximity would evoke conversation. After about 30 minutes, I typed out on my iPad, “I know it is very awkward for you to figure out how to interact with me. It’s like visiting someone who only speaks Russian. But please don’t ignore me. It will take me awhile, but I have to use my iPad in order to speak.”
I’ve learned now that I should have made that kind of statement at the outset. To be fair to others, it is a courtesy I must offer. It’s like a person with poor hearing who wisely states at the outset, “I have a hearing deficiency. Please speak slowly and raise the volume.”
I am reminded of what the Holy Spirit has been doing my entire lifetime—interceding for me “with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8). I am now much more observant of what trees, birds, butterflies, and wild flowers are continually saying. Per the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
This present limitation has also made me much more aware of the frustration God has experienced attempting to communicate with me! Just as my friend picked up a magazine rather than attempting a conversation with me, so have I with God! The “magazines” I have used are multitudinous!
Image above of Garfield speechless from https://3psbyseeker.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/sloopy-a-love-story/