This Is Us

I Can’t Wait to Order Root Beer

Overcoming a speech impediment at 22

Elmer Fudd from The Looney Tunes Show, 1951, Warner Bros.

When I was around eight or nine years old, my brother and I asked my mom for advice on how to blow a bubble when chewing gum. All our other friends were able to do it, but we just couldn’t quite figure out the movement you needed to do with your tongue. My mom looked at us and said, with some sadness in her voice, “Unfortunately, you’ll probably never be able to blow a bubble.”

Like so much of my childhood, my memory of this moment is hazy. I remember exactly what she said, but not how we responded to it. I think one of us asked for an explanation, but I can’t recall if she gave us one. I remember feeling a little ashamed, a little afraid to hear what she had to say.

Whether she said it outright or not, I’m pretty sure I understood what she meant: this had to do with our speech impediments.

I’m a twin, and throughout my life both my twin and I have had speech problems. I’m pretty sure the two issues are related, especially since, growing up, there were two other sets of twins in our grade with similar problems.

Twins are more likely to be speech delayed because in their early years, they spend all of their time together. Most kids learn how to talk from trying to communicate with the older people around them, but twins don’t need to do that as often. They spend most of the beginning of their lives interacting with just each other.

Our parents would often tell us how, as babies, we’d have our own secret language. We’d talk to each other in a language no one else could understand, but we seemed to understand each other perfectly fine. They found this adorable; I find it frustrating. We were picking up each other’s bad speaking habits, habits we’d spend years of therapy trying to unlearn. At five years old, we were still incomprehensible. By eight years old we were better, but neither of us could pronounce the “r” sound, and I was still saying the “sh,” “ch,” and “j” sounds out of the side of my mouth because I simply couldn’t say them the normal way.

Although our twinhood may have been the primary cause behind our speech troubles, the fact that this is a well-observed phenomenon should’ve clued our parents into the fact that these issues are fixable. With more therapy, we probably could’ve overcome all of this by the time we were 10 or 11 years old.

Instead, the speech lessons stopped after third grade, and we were left with an understanding that we’d failed, that the problem was set in stone. I remember at several points being told by adults I trusted that if you couldn’t fix your speech by the time you were in second or third grade, you would never be able to fix it.

It’s only over a decade later that I’m realizing just how badly I was let down by the adults around me. While I’m sure my parents genuinely believed that the issue was set in stone, they were wrong. While it’s certainly harder to overcome a speech impediment as you get older, it’s not impossible, and implying that it is is one of the worst things you can do to a kid with these issues.

And in hindsight, eight years old is insanely young to cut a speech-delayed kid off from speech therapy.

The first real sign that my parents were wrong was when I figured out how to blow a bubble. My mother was using the same logic here she’d used for our speech issues: If we couldn’t figure it out by our age, when all the other kids had gotten the hang of it, we probably never would. But I did get it. It took a lot of practice and a lot of failed attempts, but now it’s one of the easiest things in the world for me to do.

Throughout middle school and high school, I was too embarrassed to ask my parents to take me back to therapy, even when I dared to believe my speech impediment could be fixable. Once the childhood therapy lessons ended, the issue became something of a shameful open secret. We never addressed it. We pretended like it didn’t exist. For me to acknowledge my speech impediment out loud would be to acknowledge that I was defective, to acknowledge that I’d failed. A normal six-year-old can pronounce the “r” sound, so all these years later why couldn’t I?

In a way, I knew more about the “r” sound than most regular people. I knew the specific way you’re supposed to move your lips and your tongue to pronounce the sound. But there’s that extra step that’s impossible to teach, some sort of instinctual muscle movement that can only be described in vague, unhelpful instructions. Even today, when I can pronounce the sound, I still struggle to explain how.

As a teenager, I would make some attempts to fix the issue, to try to figure out that unexplainable muscle movement on my own. I would try to find a place where nobody else could listen in, or I’d wait for a moment where I was home alone, and I would look up speech therapy videos online and try to practice the sounds.

Even when I was alone, I couldn’t shake the shame and embarrassment that came with not being able to pronounce basic words.

I was never able to keep this up for long. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t making any progress; it was that I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was listening in. That someone was laughing at me. Even when I was alone, I couldn’t shake the shame and embarrassment that came with not being able to pronounce basic words.

The fact that my brother had improved over the years and I hadn’t only made things worse. He still struggled with the “r” sound, but he kept improving while I stayed the same.

Some of the most painful moments in my childhood came from watching TV with other people. Every once in a while I’d be watching a show with friends or family and there’d come along a character with a speech impediment. Someone like Barry Kripke from The Big Bang Theory, who couldn’t pronounce his “r”s or “l”s, or someone like Stacey Dillsen from Zoey 101, who had an exaggerated lateral lisp.

There was a cruelty in the way these characters were written that always made me want to sink into my seat, that always made me hate myself even further. It was the fact that these characters with speech problems were always made into a subject of mockery, and they were written in ways that seemed to encourage the audience to make fun of them. Both Barry and Stacey had uniquely annoying, repulsive personalities, and on top of that they never shied away from the words they couldn’t pronounce. On Zoey 101, the writers mined quite a bit of comedy out of having Stacey obliviously say as many “s” words as possible.

That’s not to say there weren’t moments of hope to be found in TV’s portrayals of characters like these. In the series finale of Zoey 101, Stacey ends up getting hit by a car, which miraculously cures her of her lisp without harming her in any other way. When everyone realizes what happened, they’re happy for her, and Stacey is ecstatic in a way I hoped to experience myself. Triumphantly she yells, with perfect pronunciation, “My sister Suzanne’s a staff surgeon at St. Stephen’s Hospital in Mississippi!”

It’s a ridiculous moment — obviously getting hit by a car wouldn’t cure a speech impediment — but it’s a moment I clung to. The moment her speech became normal, Stacey stopped being an outcast. Her personality was suddenly less abrasive, and people were no longer repulsed by her very presence.

By this point in my life, I’d given up on being able to fix my speech problems. The only way out of it was some kind of divine intervention. I’d read stories about people with rhotacism who’d taken LSD and could suddenly, miraculously, pronounce their “r”s. I figured that maybe if I did that, or if maybe I got hit in the head in just the right way, I could one day become a normal person. Maybe one day I’d get to feel that massive burst of relief Stacey seems to feel at the end of Zoey 101.

The reality is that speech impediments aren’t fixed in a single moment. Even if you can figure out how to say the sound correctly, you still have to spend a lot of time getting used to incorporating that sound into other words. At 22 years old, when I finally managed to say the “sh” sound the correct way, it still took several days of practice before I could say it casually. Words beginning with “sh,” like shell, were easy, but words that ended in “sh,” like push or fish, were still hard.

This breakthrough happened in November of 2020, when I decided to finally try my hardest to fix these issues once and for all. It helped that I now had my own car, and I could park high up in my apartment’s parking garage where I could feel sure no one could hear me speak. For the first time in my life, I truly felt I had a space where not a single person in the world was listening. That allowed me to mess up without getting embarrassed, without getting discouraged.

After getting the hang of “sh” sound, the “ch” and “j” sounds weren’t difficult to overcome. The “ch” sound is basically just a mix of the “sh” and “t” sound, and the “j” sound is just the “ch” sound but using your vocal cords. For most of my life, I’d tried to avoid these sounds in conversation, believing that I would never be able to say them correctly. In the end, it only took me about a week of hard work to fully overcome it.

The “r” sound was much harder.

After trying a couple of tactics that didn’t work, I settled on the Karla technique. That’s when you start off by saying the “ka” sound, then the “la” sound. Slowly say Ka, la, ka, la, a bunch of times, making sure to very slowly pull your tongue back as far as possible to make the “la” sound. Then you start saying “ka-la,” as one word, and try to turn it into Karla. As your tongue moves back to transition from the “ka” sound to the “la,” you should be able to find the “r” sound somewhere in the middle. This is all assuming you’re using the retroflex (or roll-back) method for pronouncing your “r”s.

This took several days of practice before it actually worked. I would be practicing it quietly as I went shopping for groceries, I would practice it in my car as I’d drive from place to place. I would keep practicing as I went to bed, as I cooked for myself.

The first time I got it, it happened unexpectedly. Karla. I wasn’t sure I’d gotten it right, but I tried again, and again, until eventually I could consistently manage a solid Karrrrrrla. After several more hours of practice, I managed to drop the “la” sound to say Karrrrr.

The next step in the Karla method is to take that karrrr and add onto it a word beginning with “r.” So if you wanted to say red, you’d say, karrr-red over and over again. Once you got the hang of that, you’d try to drop the karr and just say red.

This was an exciting moment, but it was just the beginning. One of the many reasons why the “r” is so difficult to learn is because there are so many variants. It’s not just a consonant; it also gets mixed in with other consonants and modifies vowels. After learning how to say words like rabbit, I’d have to learn how to say blended words like branch, fries, crayon, drink. And then of course there were the vocalic “r” words like card, bird, air, turkey, tire.

Getting the hang of each of these was a whole big thing, and the “ur/ir” sound (like in birthday or turkey) is still a little hard for me to say. It doesn’t quite match the accent I grew up surrounded by, but it’s been weeks since anyone’s ever had trouble understanding me, and for now that’s good enough.

Improving my speech has led to a massive boost in confidence these past few weeks, but I haven’t experienced a triumphant Stacey Dillsen moment yet. There’s a big difference between being able to pronounce a sound correctly in the privacy of your car in an empty parking garage and being able to say it casually in a conversation. I still need to concentrate every time I talk, and even then I’ll mess up occasionally.

There’s also the fact that, as I went home to visit my family over the holidays, nobody acknowledged that I’ve improved significantly since the last time they saw me. I’m not that surprised — they haven’t acknowledged my speech problems in over a decade, so it makes sense they wouldn’t acknowledge them now — but I start to wonder: am I deluding myself? Did I actually overcome a speech impediment, or do I just think I did?

One of the reasons my childhood speech therapy lessons didn’t work is the fact that, as far as I can recall, nobody actually told me what was wrong with me. The therapist never sat me down and told me exactly what I couldn’t say and what I should improve. I just remember a lot of confusing tongue exercises, the purpose of which I wasn’t fully aware. I knew I “spoke funny,” but it wasn’t until I was around 11 or so that I could hear myself the way others heard me.

That’s another reason why speech impediments are so hard to overcome: You can’t fully trust your own ears.

What I do is record myself with my phone and play it back, just to make sure I’m not imagining the “r” sounds coming out of my mouth. At first I thought audio playback was cold, objective truth, but soon I started to wonder: Am I just hearing what I want to hear, even in the recordings? Can I trust that I’m being honest with myself when listening?

I have not quite overcome my speech impediment yet. Rather, I am currently overcoming it.

Every day I spend at least an hour in my car reading out loud. Whenever I come across an “r” word, I don’t move on until I say it correctly. Whenever there’s a particularly hard sentence, (some bullshit like, “Rory ran across the rural roadway”) I will record myself and play my voice back to me, just to make sure my progress isn’t imagined.

I’ve found that words beginning with “thr” are still hard to say, and with words containing both a “w” and “r” sound, I’ll often over-correct. For instance, I’ll often mispronounce world as rorld, or paw or par. It’s the exact opposite problem of what I’ve been dealing with most of my life, but this time it’s a lot easier to fix.

There’s a big difference between being able to pronounce a sound correctly in the privacy of your car and being able to say it casually in a conversation.

I’m aware that it will most likely take a while before I can speak completely normally in a casual conversation. I know that for most people who overcome speech impediments in adulthood, speaking normally is a constant game of concentration. It’s like having to speak in an accent that isn’t yours for the rest of your life. I will likely slip back into old habits when I’m tired or drunk or especially stressed out. Even with “sh”/”ch” sounds (which have been so much easier to get used to), I will still occasionally say them out of the side of my mouth if I’m not paying attention.

Though I haven’t completely overcome these issues, my day-to-day life has improved immensely over the last month. When ordering takeout, I no longer have any anxieties about using the phone. I’ll casually order food like shrimp fried rice, and the guy on the phone will have no idea how big of a win this is for me.

When speaking to people, I no longer feel the need to think several sentences ahead, constantly searching for easy words to replace the hard ones. In the past, I’d often reach the middle of saying something and realizing that an upcoming word would be a heavy “r” word, so I’d quickly try to think of a synonym to say instead. Sometimes I’d be able to easily think of a replacement and it would work out fine. Other times, I’d end up with a word that doesn’t really fit and I’d sound dumber or weirder than I actually am.

Nowadays I can simply say whatever it is I want to say. Do normal people understand how amazing it is to be able to do this?

In the beginning of the pandemic, I’ll admit I was relieved that I no longer had any real obligation to socialize with other people. I no longer felt any guilt about not going to parties, not attending clubs, not raising my hand in class. For the speech-impaired, quarantine has made life a little easier. Things tend to be more text-based, so the ability to physically speak hasn’t been as important throughout these past nine months.

Now, I’m excited for the day when the parties come back, when I feel safe going to restaurants again, when my college classes go back to being in-person. I’d like to raise my hand in class when I’ve got something to say. I’d like to meet new people without anything weighing me down. I’d like to be a guest on a podcast somehow. I’d like to maybe attempt stand-up comedy.

One of my favorite sodas is root beer, but I’ve never asked for it at a restaurant because I hated the way it sounded coming out of my mouth. When this pandemic is over, I’d like to walk into a restaurant and order one with my meal without any trouble. It’s a small thing, but for me it’d mean the world.

I am a cautionary tale for others. Follow my newsletter: https://mikeb98.substack.com/ Follow me on twitter: @98MikeB

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