Some years ago I had speech therapy for dysarthria. The therapy consisted mainly of breathing and vocal exercises, aimed at strengthening and enhancing the many components of physiology involved in speech. It was very successful and the professionals who helped me have my eternal gratitude. Along the way, I noticed that I was having some small trouble with initiating speech. Although a thought would form quickly and lucidly in my mind, actually triggering the vocal machinery to convert it into spoken words was sometimes problematic. It was like using a computer with a slow, damaged printer as the output device. Having been a computer designer and programmer for many years, it seemed to me that what was needed was a second output device, perhaps even a full two-way communications channel.
It’s certainly nothing new for people to compensate for one shortcoming by drawing upon one or more other senses or faculties. For example, there is Braille for the visually impaired and sign language for the hearing impaired. Even for someone without any such disability, learning a new language has profound benefits.
“To have another language is to possess a second soul”
If I could open such a second communications channel, I could link my mind to the outside world while bypassing speaking altogether. This would allow me to work on both problems, the dysarthria and the imperfect speech initiation, as two processes in parallel (my inner geek again). However, another spoken language would not help here, and sign language required another person for learning and practice. Additionally, I wanted to keep it in the audio realm because working on neural audiology would reinforce my other therapy. I needed something that was audio-based, flexible enough for real communication, and simple enough to learn quickly, perhaps even with automated help.
Back in high school, I had belonged to the amateur radio club, mainly due to my interest in electronics. We built circuits, from oscillators to amplifiers to modest radio transmitters and receivers. The really keen members of the club (which did not include me) went so far as to obtain their amateur radio license. One of the requirements for this was proficiency in Morse code, that dih-dah-dih beeping from a bygone era sometimes featured in movie plots from the Old West to air and sea.
Aha – I had found the answer.
I assembled a few resources – a Morse code chart, an inexpensive key, an audio oscillator and speaker, and even a few text snippets encoded as Morse audio files from the Internet. Surprisingly, a bit of my old familiarity with Morse had stayed with me across the years. I keyed a few short phrases and found to my great joy that there was no delay or difficulty in initiating them. It also provided good fine motor control exercise for my right hand – another therapy which I needed but had not taken up as yet. I quickly improved at both writing and reading Morse, and soon began tapping out thoughts even if a pencil or fork was all I had available.
After a few weeks, I noticed a marked improvement in my speech initiation too, although I cannot say for sure whether this was the result of Morse practice or normal therapy and recovery. I like to think it was a combination of both. It could also be that any kind of learning*, even just passive reading, is beneficial during this type of recovery.
The biggest surprise is the one that comes with any new comprehension of previously unknown words or language. Now, whenever I hear some innocuous Morse in the background of a film, I read it without even trying; usually it’s meaningful, but occasionally, it’s just gibberish !
“I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity”
– Samuel Morse
We sometimes give ourselves too much credit for all that’s new and shiny. Staying with telegraphy, here’s a prediction of cell phones (in regards to Marconi’s “Syntonic Wireless Telegraphy”) from 1901!
- I found a few other tools helpful in the course of my rehabilitation. The concept of ‘syntonicity’ was important, that is, the idea that learning is a subjective, experiential process. I revived my old interest in the Forth programming language, as well as playing ‘management’ games like Minecraft, SimCity, and Civilization. I’ve loved this genre ever since playing a version of Hammurabi written in line-numbered BASIC back in the early 1980s. Exploring, balancing resources, making strategic decisions, and planning for the near and far future are tremendous therapeutic tools.