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What my overseas trip taught me about my job.

What my overseas trip taught me about my job.

I love words. Written words in books, word searches, word play, listening and talking with others and analysing them in my job as a paediatric speech pathologist. However, I didn’t realise just how important they were to me until I was no longer competent in using them.

I have been dreaming of overseas travel since I was a child, but it wasn’t until this year (after university, marriage and raising children) that I achieved it. I decided to attend Spielwarenmesse (Toy Fair) in Nuremberg Germany to see the latest toys, trends and connect with companies for my business Small Moments Speech & Play. As I was going all that way, I decided to visit Italy, France and England. While my husband was joining me in England, the rest of my journey was on my own.

I had dabbled in learning three languages on DuoLingo, but I departed with only the very basics and hoping that Google Translate would save the day. The best advice I was given before my trip was to learn to say ‘Hello, Do you speak English?’ and apologising for mangling the language.

Many Europeans had some English and I respected that their bilingual ability put their language skills way ahead of mine. I was able to watch others to get some hint of what to do and interpreted visuals on signs to guide me. And yes, Google Translate did help, but technology failed me in the first few days when my eSim didn’t work, and I could only use the app when I was connected to Wi-Fi. After being so used to reaching for my phone, suddenly, I couldn’t easily ask for help or navigate the environment, and I found it anxiety-inducing. It was then that my learning really began.

I had not realised how much being competent in language has helped me in life. While I have a really good understanding of speech and language development, disorders, diagnosis and treatment, it has been a very long time since I have FELT what it is like not to be able to communicate.

After 24 years as a speech pathologist, I had forgotten how difficult it can be to try new sounds, words and sentences and then encounter communication failure. I started thinking about how I could better reassure kids, to make them feel more comfortable or brave enough to try new skills. As adults, we need to remember how complex learning is and I am even more determined to help parents and teachers build support for children as they grow.

In Italy, I had the most amazing spinach dish that I wanted the recipe for. I found the right phrase on Google Translate and gave it my best shot but the restaurateur couldn’t understand me and spoke no English. Instead, I showed him my phone, and he got his phone out as well. Slowly we typed in our questions and answers, and showed each other our responses. We stayed patient, gave each other time to process, and were willing to persist through the communication barriers. We were both on equal footing and had a shared wish to communicate.

Many children I work with have communication devices or apps to communicate with known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication or AAC. Sometimes these devices are left in the bag at school or stayed switched off on the desk for a variety of reasons, but often it’s a lack of confidence or knowledge on how to use the device or understanding its benefits. Being a good communication partner is an important responsibility and patience and empathy is at its heart. We can take the time and make a commitment to work to remove the power imbalance that a communication difficulty creates. We can also ensure that non-speaking children always have access to a means to communicate.

At the end of each day I was exhausted. It wasn’t merely the walking and exploring; it was the mental exhaustion of always concentrating, in other words, the cognitive load of learning. Navigating the streets, looking the opposite way for traffic when crossing the road, different layouts in grocery shops, interpreting not only the unfamiliar words but body language and cultural norms, standing on the opposite side of escalators and when climbing stairs- everything was just different enough for me to be constantly ‘on’.

We see the impact of this in children when they feel overwhelmed after a day at school. For children with sensory differences or other disabilities, the stimulus of the classroom combined with trying to regulate themselves is enormously challenging. When they also don’t have the communication skills or general maturity to express their experiences and emotions, it is no wonder that they appear to fall apart. To be honest there were some days I was on the floor with my own overwhelm. But I had the ability and agency to express some of those thoughts and feelings in writing or by calling home – strategies not available to many children.

For the first two weeks, most of my interactions with others were one or two words or short phrases at most. As I was travelling alone, I had so many experiences, feelings, and ideas that I wanted to share with others but didn’t have the vocabulary for, and it was incredibly frustrating. Many parents concerned about their children's communication skills at 2-3 years are told to ‘wait and see’ or ‘they will catch up’. I have many problems with this, but my main one is that as a child’s thinking skills, understanding, and world experience develop, they have so much to share that can’t be conveyed by pointing or with one or two words. No wonder we see these children frustrated, angry and often dispirited by not being able to express themselves. I was so relieved when my husband arrived in the UK and was able to communicate with him competently that I barely drew breath for the first hour. We want children to experience the joy of communicating and being understood (whether through spoken words or AAC), which I think is at the heart of being human, and the key to wellbeing.

While I understood this all before my trip, I had not experienced and felt it in a very long time. Shared experience is not always necessary for empathy, but having a small glimpse of struggling with communication on a daily basis really helped me, as did reflecting on my experiences. I want to keep putting myself in new situations that challenge me and help me rethink how I work and how I understand the children I work with.

Being a learner is hard – it challenged my self-conception and my assumptions and reminded me of the time, patience, structure and opportunities it takes to become competent at a skill. I also know that I may improve my pronunciation and my vocabulary, but real comprehension will only come from repeated exposure and practice over time, using evidence-based learning strategies, as well as commitment and a goal to work towards.

Nearly everyone that I encountered while travelling was patient and generous with my poor language skills. I am not great at asking for help, and I felt very vulnerable, not only needing help but unable to communicate it fully and clearly. I was cautious and aware of my environment and who to ask, but it did remind me that people can be kind. We are so focused on raising our children's awareness of all the dangers around them that I do wonder if we forget to tell them that there is kindness, patience, generosity and help in the world too. Maybe we need a better balance of both.

If you would like to see all the exciting new product lines that my trip inspired, please come and visit