I will never forget my shock when I first practiced administering diagnostic tests as a graduate speech-language pathology student. Encountering new vocabulary and identifying individual sounds was incredibly challenging. "How will I graduate? What if, after their sessions with me, my clients walk out of my sessions with a Chinese accent?" I lost count of the times this question arose in my head that first semester.
As a child in Hong Kong, I learned English through rote memorization and repetition. My kindergarten teachers would point to a picture and tell the class "cat" in Cantonese, then switch to English and say "cat." Homework would be copying the word "cat" 20 times. Teachers never explained orthographic-phonological associations.
When I began graduate school, I struggled to analyze and identify my client's problems because my experience learning English had been so different from his. It was hard for me to get inside his head. I asked peers how they learned English growing up in America, and their answers helped me compare typical English acquisition to my experiences. Understanding the difference helped me identify breakdown areas for my clients.
When I was 17, I moved across the globe from Hong Kong to Boston to reunite with my family. As I adjusted to the foreign language and environment, I rediscovered my comfort zone in a universal form of communication—music. I earned a bachelor's degree in music therapy from Berklee College of Music, where I used music to communicate with my clients. As a music therapist in adult day care and rehabilitation hospital settings, I soon realized I needed a new set of clinical skills to help my clients not only to sing, but also to speak. That is why I pursued graduate school in speech-language pathology at the MGH Institute of Health Professions.
Once again I was learning English, but this time so I could help my clients. Fundamental speech-language concepts, such as vowel sounds, come naturally to native English speakers. But I had to practice and request feedback from peers to ensure I could pronounce and identify sounds accurately. I extensively preview materials and practice reading aloud to avoid needing extra processing time during therapy sessions. Prior preparation frees up my cognitive energy to be flexible and spontaneous when engaging my clients, instead of having to translate information in the moment.
Writing, especially clinical writing with its different format and precision, remains challenging for me. In Cantonese, written and spoken forms of language differ completely. Cantonese does not use certain forms, such as plurals, verb tenses and spoken pronouns. Many aspects are lost in translation between languages and from the spoken to written format. Even while writing this column, I revised each sentence repeatedly to match what I had in mind to what appeared on the paper. In the process of improving my writing skills, I practice the rules and strategies from my classes before teaching them to my clients. I asked fellow students to proofread my writing, and then created a checklist of errors to help me edit my own work. Additionally, English tutors have helped me learn more about English syntax and paragraph structure.
A client once asked, "Ms. King, what does this word mean?" I replied, "That's a great question! But I don't know either, so let's look that up together!" As scary as admitting ignorance was, being flexible helped to turn my weakness into a positive by working through an unfamiliar vocabulary word, while modeling a problem-solving strategy for my client.
English will be a lifelong study for me. I am grateful to be in a field that appreciates my bilingualism. Ten years ago, I sat in my ESL classes struggling to understand my professors. I fantasized about finishing college, but never thought I would one day help others with speech and language problems. Today, I cannot wait to serve my clients with my passion for music and speech-language pathology in both the Chinese and American communities.