Searching for the Right Words: Living with Aphasia

Imagine waking up one morning and forgetting how to speak your native language, the one you have spoken for most of your life. Your loved ones try speaking to you, and while you know how you’d like to respond, you just can’t seem to find the words to say. You become tongue-tied, embarrassed, and increasingly frustrated when no one can seem to understand the words that you do get out of your mouth. Trying to write what you are thinking is to no avail as well. You feel isolated in your inability to communicate, stranded on an island with no way to get off. Now, imagine living like this every day.  For close to two million Americans, this, or something similar to this, is their everyday existence. This is known as aphasia.

Aphasia is a cognitive disorder that involves the loss of language function, particularly in regards to speaking, reading, and writing. Though commonly considered to be a speech disorder and treated by speech-language pathologists, aphasia has origins in the brain. Aphasia is most often the results of a stroke, but can also come from other traumatic brain injuries, brain tumors, or other neurological issues. There are several different treatment options available, but recovery is often very slow and laborious, and a full recovery is not often seen.

As language is something that many people take for granted, it may be hard to conceptualize the cognitive difficulties that these individuals are facing.  Wheeler E. Hubbard, a man who has been suffering from aphasia, describes what his personal experience with aphasia:

“Imagine that you are playing bingo. My brain is like the drum that they turn to pick a number.  I have about 2,000 words in my brain. To speak, I have got to go into the “drum” and find the word that I want, concentrate on it, bring it to my mouth and figure out how to say it, what tense to make it, then get it in the right order in the sentence.  Something you take for granted takes all my effort, energy, and concentration to do.”

While this is one individual’s experience with living with aphasia, aphasia can actually mean different things depending on what area of the brain is impacted. There are three major categories of aphasia: Wernicke’s, Broca’s and Global aphasia. Wernicke’s aphasia is the most common type of fluent aphasia, meaning that a person ’s sentences may sound completely fluent, but the word choice can have no meaning, contain extra words, or even use made-up words. Individuals with Wernicke’s aphasia do not often recognize that they have made any mistakes in their sentences, and often have difficulty understanding what others say. Broca’s aphasia, on the other hand, is nonfluent aphasia. This means that they may understand speech and know what they want to say, but have a hard time producing sentences. They may omit smaller words and speak in shorter phrases. They are more likely to recognize their mistakes and become frustrated. Global aphasia is a more severe type of aphasia. These individuals may only be able to say a few words, repeat the same phrase over and over again, and have severe difficulties understanding others.

Now that you are well armed with the knowledge of aphasia, a question you might be having is “How can I communicate with someone with aphasia?” Though it depends on every individual, here are a few suggestions!

  1. Allow the individual time to speak. Trying to offer up words and finishing the individual’s sentences, may make them feel like you are rushing them or do not care about what they have to say.
  2. Try to find non-verbal ways to communicate, such as gestures, facial expressions, or even drawings. This will allow for the conversion to rely not so heavily on language.
  3. Give them praise when they are able to say or pronounce something clearly, and downplay any mistakes that they might make. This does not mean pretending that every single word is perfect if it isn’t; lying to them will not make the situation any better, especially if they can tell that you are lying.
  4. Make sure that you do not come across as speaking down to them. Though it may seem like you are trying to be nice and use simple words to communicate, as if talking to a child, it’s important to remember that this individual is still an adult, and should be treated as one.

Ultimately, the most important thing that you can do is to be empathetic. Understand that however frustrated you are with your inability to communicate with an individual with aphasia, that they are most likely frustrated with themselves. Showing the individual that you care by including them in conversations and allowing them the space to talk reminds them that they do have people who care about them and want to communicate with them.


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My Story of Aphasia. (2015, February 25). Retrieved from

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