A Boy From Honduras


Several years ago I worked with a seven-year-old boy who didn’t speak English.  He was from Honduras and he spoke about fifty or sixty words familiar to me – mostly nouns and verbs.

The rest of the time, he spoke fluent Spanish.

The boy from Honduras was quite timid, his dark, black bangs covered his eyebrows and flicked whenever he blinked. He rested his chin on his chest, the neck of his striped t-shirt pulled up over his mouth, muffling the English he could speak, making it even harder to understand.

At the time I met the boy from Honduras, I spoke English – and a good amount of French; I didn’t speak any other languages.

The boy had been adopted by an American, English-speaking couple who lived on Cape Cod.  Not long after moving to his new home, the boy’s new parents identified something unusual in their new son’s behavior.  The boy wouldn’t come out of his room.  He sat on the floor beside his bed all day.  The concerned parents sought help for what appeared to them to be depression.  “We thought it would be easier for him to adjust,” they said, almost in unison.  “He has his own room, a new bike, his own TV.  We just thought he would be happy and that we would all just eventually learn to communicate.”

“Does he speak English?”

“Not a lot,” the adoptive mother said.  “He can understand a lot, though.”

Upon our first visit, I found we were having trouble understanding one another, me and this boy from Honduras. I relied on my hands, facial contortions and the tone of my voice to make up for what I couldn’t communicate in words.  “Are you sad today,” I would say, lowering the vocal range of my voice to its lowest low, “Saaaaaaad?” I contorted my mouth into an exaggerated frown with the help of my fingers on either side of my mouth. He nodded in agreement that he understood and, realizing that even though he was sad, there was very little he could do to explain why; he looked at his shoes, swinging them back and forth under the little chair he was sitting in.

The following week, I found that I was quite adept at identifying the obvious.  Are you sad?  Are you happy?  Are you thirsty?  Are you cold? I couldn’t, however, ask him, When you think of leaving Honduras and coming to this strange place, what do you tell yourself?  This little brown boy from Tegus, sitting in an office in Boston, wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, was isolated by language.

The boy’s parents and I discussed the use of a Spanish-speaking therapist or an interpreter.  They said they had tried to find a Spanish-speaking therapist, but one was not available who accepted their insurance or at the price they could afford. The boy’s parents agreed that he may benefit from having an interpreter.

Over the course of the first two weeks of our twice-weekly meetings, while we waited for the interpreter to make room on her schedule for the boy from Honduras, his English vocabulary increased by a few words.  We were both thankful for that; but, alas, my Spanish vocabulary didn’t increase at all and we were soon stuck, again.

“Can you tell me about your trip to Boston?” I asked, “Do you remember that?”

“Trip?” he asked.

“When you came to live here?”

“Cametoleaveear?”

“Airplane,” I said, making wings with my arms and the sound of an airplane with my teeth and lips.

In our third week, I greeted the boy in much the same way I had when we met a few weeks prior, “How are you?”

“I-ng fy-ng.”

“How’s it going?”

“Fy-ng.”

You talk today?” I said, pointing my finger at his chest and then at my own mouth.

The boy sat looking around the room and then down at his shoes.

I waited.

Each time, just before speaking, the boy looked up, expressed some excitement, started to speak but gradually returned to thinking.  In fact, he tried several times to say something, but returned to thinking, his eyes roaming from left to right, as if trying to transform his Spanish thoughts in the right side of his brain into the English words on the left.  He did this several times until finally he said, “I not give good English.”

“I know,” I said, slumping my shoulders and frowning. “Just tell best you can.”  I emphasized the words, as if I were chatting with someone who was hard of hearing.  “I-try-good-understand.”

“O.K.,” he said, “I-yam . . . estoy nostálgico,” and gripped his fists together, “Nostálgico?”

“No,” I said, sadly, “again . . . try again.”

The boy looked at me, transforming the space between us into a brick wall with his expression.  He returned his chin to his chest.

“I have an idea! Tell me in Spanish,” I heard myself suddenly say.  “Just talk to me in Spanish.  Use your own language to explain to me. You understand?”

“Non,” he said, but obviously interested, energized by my facial expression. He leaned forward.

“You-talk-Spanish,” I said.  “You-say-Spanish.”

He appeared uncomfortable, embarrassed by the idea of speaking Spanish to me, knowing full well I wouldn’t understand a word of it.  “Non,” he said, covering his mouth, smiling broadly.

“You try!” I said.  “We try! You, me.”

He waited. Cautious not to speak outside the conventions of discourse he had learned over the course of his lifetime.  He appeared outwardly self-conscious of the sound of his own voice; as if talking to himself was wrong – outside the boundaries we allow ourselves to express our thoughts. He leaned forward and began whispering in a somewhat animated, articulated fashion.  He said something that only he and other Spanish-speaking people could understand.  He waited for my response.  Was he testing me?  He smiled broadly, giggled and said the same thing again. I raised my shoulders and put my hands in the air, expressing my inability to understand.

He laughed and seemed content.

“How you to-day?” I asked. “Talk Español.” I moved my hands, expressing some universally understood sign language I imagined would help translate each word.   “How (raise and lower shoulders and show palm of hands) you (point finger at his chest) today (move hands in a circular motion; finish by showing the palms of my hands)?” “Talk (point at mouth with finger and point at his mouth) Español (put finger in front of my own mouth and turn it in circles).

The boy sat back in his chair, placed his hands between his thighs and looked down at his chest.  He spoke softly at first, but then gradually, as he grew accustomed to the sound of his own voice, raised his eyes and spoke with more volume, determination and intention.

The boy from Honduras spent the next thirty minutes telling me a story that occasionally brought a smile to his face but, just as quickly, filled his eyes with tears.  He wiped his eyes with his t-shirt.

Of course I couldn’t understand his words, but his eyes, his face, the color of his ears, the way he moved told me something about his story that could be clearly understand – something not really available to language.  After a few minutes, however, I was in pace with him. I allowed my own face to mirror his face, and, checking for understanding now and then, he clearly recognized something in the way I was responding, something deeper than words; something that fueled his story by promoting a sense that I was truly hearing him.

Mental health experts believe that facial expressions are primarily communicative in nature.  They can serve as a prelude to our intentions, an indication of our internal state. In fact, facial expressions are often recognizable across cultures.  Facial expressions, even among some animals, could possibly be a primitive way of expressing thought – thought that this is not readily available in spoken language.  (Even those who share a common language have been known to use facial expressions to communicate an internal state, quite accurately.) Facial expressions may even predate spoken language and may have been, at one time, long ago, our primary source for communicating with others. Anger, suspicion, happiness, sadness, disgust and surprise are regularly expressed using universally accepted facial expressions. Now, in instances where language is a barrier between people, facial expressions seem to be Nature’s enduring gift, bridging the median that often exists between understanding and indifference.

A great deal of emphasis is often placed on the use of spoken language in the provision of mental health services.

What do I say to my client?

What if my patient says this?

What do I say then?

Even therapist who have been in practice for many, many years sometimes focus their encounters with others on language, banter, crafty psychological philosophy and theory, magical talking cures that, when practiced just right will result in a miraculous cure for their patient.

It is our responsibility as therapists to help each of the people we encounter to be what s/he can be.  This goal is better achieved by ensuring that our talking cures are focused not on our own language but on the language our clients use to articulate their ideas, interests, hopes and dreams.  We cannot limit understanding to the words and meanings we understand. We must also strive to truly see and hear the people with whom we come in contact.

Nothing could have trained me better to appreciate any eventuality in language, every nuance of sound and movement, than the boy from Honduras.  I never did learn what he said to me that day.  His parents took him by the hand and they went home.  The interpreter never called back, and everyone blended back into the world.

The boy from Honduras, however, is ever-present in how I have encountered everyone – everyone I have ever met since hearing him.

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10 responses

  1. What a great way to help others see that so much about communication may be found in other ways than words.
    I have been thinking about the vast differences in how we communicate when words are available, when body language is available, when enviromental factors are available, And the difference when these same things are not available.

    I find communicating with fellow bloggers fascinating. When there are no eyes to look into, no hand to touch, no arms to express wioth…..only the words. …..interesting.

  2. This is REALLY good. I’d like to wish that each person I come across, no matter what the circumstance, has adopted this belief. Having watched as a consumer this very ladder climbing happen in a NEW medical practice; the really sad thing was that the staff’s perspective was not looking after the patients. The staff got (not all) so involved in climbing that ladder they forgot why they were there in the first place. Forgot who they were really working for. And it was as ovious to those of us paying attention as the noses on our faces.
    Really kind of sad.

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