Becoming Bilingual

I didn’t expect that we would move to Sydney and become fluent in a new language.

The Kid and Little Brother’s experiences of language have been at opposite ends of the spectrum (see what I did there?): TK being a late starter but now filling the silent and empty spaces with questions upon questions, always seeking information; LB harping on something TK hardly ever did: the art of imitation. I hear him parrot me without his even knowing he’s doing it, the huffy “GAAH”s and the occasional bursts of profanity (“This is FUCK!” in the waiting room at TK’s therapy centre being a classic example). Then there are the thousand other things he utters, revealing that his ears are always attuned, that my words are soaking in for better or worse. There are the “broccoli smells like farts” pronouncements at the supermarket; the “James, you have to say ‘please'” exhortations that only serve to anger his big brother; and, my recent favourite, “I can only do ONE THING AT A TIME,” something he hears me say daily and uses at his (but not my) convenience. The other day, on the way to school, he told us he was going to share toys with his mates and I melted in the front seat. They are both sponges, taking in what they see and hear and processing it in their own ways.

But they both say “ba-nAAHH-na,” and “rubbish bin,” and “playing up,” and a hundred other Australian-isms that we’ve learned together, the local language seeping into all of us.

After last week’s student-initiated introduction of the word autism to TK’s class, I realised it was time to step up and teach TK’s colleagues a new vernacular. And to introduce some words to him that we haven’t used yet. So I sat him and LB on the couch and we watched a video about how brains work and what the A-word is. Up to this point, we’ve been using a different A-word–the Apple brain–to describe how TK’s mind works. I prefer that far more descriptive and accurate term more than one that reflects a best guess, umbrella-type diagnosis that doesn’t begin to summarise TK.

But there are a lot of words, and we have to learn them all.

Yesterday I went to TK’s class to speak to them our language: the special Apple brain that TK possesses, the special hat called a halo that he wore, the way he teaches me every day. The students sat, rapt. Occasionally one of them would wave at me from his or her perch on the floor as though we were having our own little moment, separate from the rest. LB sat on my lap, inserting words into the conversation now and then, always seeking to be involved. TK stood beside me, alternately listening and just grinning, shy and proud. He heard the language of his story. With one Xanax and a lot of prayer on board, I was as ready as I could be to tell it. Afterward, I heard other stories: parents telling me about what their kids came home telling them. How cool it is that James doesn’t care what people think. “I love James.” How James doesn’t like loud noises, and “neither do I, Mum! We’re the same!” How James likes cars–“just like me!” How James got to ride horses, and “we should do a class excursion and go horse riding!”

The last question of the talk came from a girl in the back, who asked the million-dollar one: “Why does James have autism?”

One of the reasons I know I’ve always believed in God, even when I wished I didn’t, was because of how often I get mad at him. I thought, in that moment, of all the tears shed, the anger unleashed, the frustrations mounted, the “why”s I’ve asked over the years. This question, seemingly so impossible to answer, but I know it. I know the answer.

“I think he was made this way,” I told her, told them all, “because he has special things to show the world.”

I never asked to learn this language, but I’ll never stop being grateful that I can speak it.

Later that night, TK went over to the cupboard and grabbed my Apple computer. “If most people have HP brains,” I had told his class, “then James has an Apple brain.” Before I could ask him (indignantly) what he was doing with my stuff, he placed the laptop on a bench and grabbed his own blue HP. He lined the computers up next to each other. The HP and the Apple, side by side.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *