Thursday, November 15, 2007

Baby Talk

I loathe baby talk. I didn’t talk to my baby that way, I don’t talk to animals that way, and I certainly never talked to a spouse or a lover that way. Anyone who used baby talk on me was automatically disqualified from having the chance of another date. I don’t use baby talk on any babies, something which can be alarming to parents, but babies don’t seem to mind when I speak to them about global water shortages or whatever else I may be thinking about. Given that we want our kids to speak like adults, one wonders why we start with baby talk.

While working with people who have profound physical disabilities and/or mental retardation, I saw baby talk in action on a regular basis. For some reason, the disabled, the elderly, and the infirm are all on the receiving end of baby talk, often employed at a slightly louder decibel level than regular speech. Not only do we perceive people who have disabilities as lacking the intelligence to decipher common English, apparently we also perceive them as hard of hearing. I once saw a man who has Down ’s syndrome respond to a woman who was loudly baby-talking him by bellowing and drooling. As she scurried off, he wiped his chin and laughed.

In nursing homes, this odious linguistic phenomenon is known as “elderspeak.” You will never hear older adults using it to converse with one another, but young caregivers frequently use it to speak to their patients. Studies show that it can diminish the confidence of a senior in their own abilities. It’s a very non-subtle form of ageism, and it’s incredibly patronizing. If you wouldn’t talk to your best friend that way, you probably shouldn’t use baby talk on anyone.

It is no secret that my husband has cancer. One day after he went through some tests, the nurse came out and told me “he did so good!” as if he were a mildly retarded five year old. “He’s sick, not stupid,” I wanted to shout. I’ve been uncharacteristically meek, because I don’t want to make things harder for him. Thankfully most nurses are smart, funny people, who can size up a patient the way a good server sizes up a customer, and they instinctively know just how to talk to the person in front of them. It’s the small percentage of baby talkers that are likely to cause some form of combustion on my part.

How we speak to one another is important. If we grow up watching Dad yell at Mom, we learn that this is how men speak to women. If Mom always screams at the kids, they learn that screaming is how to communicate. If parents don’t pay enough attention to children, the children act out in public. People who don’t feel safe and secure are often angry in their communications. Communication is a necessary skill for world leaders. We’ve all spent the last seven years watching an extraordinarily inarticulate man represent us to the rest of the world. We’ve all laughed about his many gaffes and garbled phrases, but, his inability to speak his own native tongue has diminished our country in the eyes of the world, and lowered our own expectations of what leadership should look like. This may be an intentional strategy – after all, we expect less from a buffoon.

Talk radio is beginning to sneak on to the airwaves of northern NH. Driving home at night I’ve picked up some rabid right wing talk programs. I learned recently that feminists are responsible for ADHD. Yep, the feminists invented ADHD, then caused a generation of young men to be drugged, in order to prevent these young men from asserting themselves as chest beating, testosterone driven, violent savages, thereby ensuring that more women would go to college than men. This bit of wisdom was imparted by Michael Savage, a talk radio host whose real name is Michael Weiner. His show is called “Savage Nation,” which undoubtedly has more rabid right wing appeal than a show called “Weiner Nation” would possess. I’ve also been catching up on my Sean Hannity listening. Sean Hannity calls himself a great American. Apparently the qualifications for that title are rudeness and intolerance. He shows a marked inability to let anyone ask an uninterrupted question – and an inability to answer any question asked. Like many right wing chickenhawks, he has plenty to say about veterans like John Murtha and John Kerry. There are many things wrong with our national communication skills, and talk radio is one of the symptoms of our disease. Perhaps forcing these evil-spewers to use nothing BUT baby-talk would be one solution.

Across the nation, and certainly around this state, people are tired of the constant drone of divisiveness and insult. They crave a more substantial dialogue, which is understandable. We’ve been fed a lot of empty calories and air for years now, while newspapers print less world news, and celebrity gossip is foisted upon as actually being of some importance.

We deserve better. It’s up to us to speak out when we don’t like the way we are being spoken to.

“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” George Carlin

1 comment:

Thomas Maher said...

Thank you!
I was raised by a grandparent who suffered a stroke while I was four years old. My grandmother came back from the dead, raised me, lost her husband five years later, and kept on going. When this woman was 89 years old, frail and at the end of her life if I had been condescending she would have disowned me. We need to respect everyone that we have contact with.