Yo soy La Lay

adventures in family, faith, and Down syndrome

On Language

on March 5, 2014

Words are so powerful.  The problem is that words are also so tricky.

My life’s work is teaching students how to use new words to express themselves… to get what they need, to make a new friend, to experience the world differently.  The excitement of a student on a Monday morning who used Spanish to order in a restaurant on Saturday afternoon is beautiful.  16 year old teenagers beam from ear to ear as they tell me about how they understood someone in the checkout line at Jewel.  And I beam right back.   

One of the difficulties in teaching language is helping my students understand the differences in culture that can evoke strong emotion when a word is used incorrectly.  As a study abroad student in Ecuador, I lived with an absolutely wonderful family.  Toward the end of my stay with them, my host brother commented on how my host sister and I were similar.  He said that she and I are very intelligent, but like to have fun.  Trying to agree with him by saying that we are both kind of silly, I used the word “estupida” to describe my host sister and I.  Now, my Profe Junkroski taught me better than that back in my first year of Spanish, but in my rush to get my feelings out, I used a word that carries a much stronger meaning in Spanish than what I wanted to convey.  Her face flushed, as did mine…  it was painful and awkward.   

This is what happens when someone uses the word “retard” or any of its various forms.  

Let’s not mince words here.  The fact of the matter is that my child will most likely be mild to moderately mentally retarded.  That is an accepted and appropriate way for a professional to refer to her slower-than-typical cognitive function.  But it is not a word that is used to describe her as a person, nor is it appropriate for describing a mistake, or a rule that one might find bothersome.  It does not describe a friend who has done something silly, nor any other person or experience that is disagreeable.

You see, context is the tricky part of language.  And even the most mundane of words that we chose can evoke strong feelings in those around us.  Don’t believe me?  Say the word “mom” in front of someone who has just lost their mother or “pregnant” around someone who is struggling to conceive a child.  Don’t care?  That’s very sad and unfortunate for you.  

The reality is that we do not know the intricacies of the minds of those around us.  The joyful thing about language is that we have lots of words to use!  I’m not suggesting that one must avoid any and all words that could possibly evoke a negative reaction.  That is just impossible and quite unnecessary.  Again however, the word “retard” is only an appropriate way for a professional to refer to someone’s slower-than-typical cognitive function, and even there it is falling out of favor.  And rather than using the word “retard,” there are so many other ways to express ourselves that won’t turn the insides of our fellow human beings into knots.

When I called my host sister stupid, she and my host brother very graciously explained that the word I was looking for was “tonta,” with a meaning more similar to silly, which is what I actually meant.  If you hear the “r” word, might it be possible for you to do the same?

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7 responses to “On Language

  1. Ruth Stoeckel says:

    On that bandwagon with ya!

  2. Kara R. says:

    Yes, yes, yes! This has bothered me for so long.

  3. Ashley says:

    Yesterday, one of our special education teachers sent out an email about r-word.org and asked us to take the time to read through it, share it with our students, and sign the pledge. It was a great way to introduce the topic with our students and provide them with the language to use, “intellectual disability” instead of the r-word, when appropriate. Thank YOU for spreading this information and for this beautifully written blog. You rock, Dub!

  4. Lindsay O says:

    The community that I work in is very involved with the Spread The Word to End The Word campaign. This is the video released this year by our local high school (Pontiac Township High School) to celebrate the National Spread The Word to End The Word day.

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