Name It: Building the Bridge to Formal Language

Question: How do we build a bridge between a shared experience and a formal language that is meaningful for a child who is deafblind?

By sharing our attention with a child, we are signaling that we are open and available to join their conversation. When we give a name to what the child is interested in and commenting on, we are helping to make important language connections in the child’s brain. It is the first step in building formal language. As we start to put labels on things, actions, and people, we build associations. It also affirms that we are actively listening and that we are responding. This begins the serve and return of conversation: “I talk, you listen… You talk, I listen.”  

Thinking back to the story of Matt, Weston, and the shiny pearl button shirt, Matt noticed that his baby Weston’s attention was on his shiny button. Matt shared a moment’s gaze with Weston briefly, looked and pointed to the button, and then said,  “Button. That’s my button!” Weston was just a small baby who wasn’t speaking yet. Matt communicated in a way that was accessible to Weston by sharing a gaze and pointing.  He paired the formal language with the gesture of pointing to name it.  This formal language (English) is one that Weston will hear throughout his life, but he needs a “more knowledgeable other” to make a bridge by noticing what he is seeing/experiencing and naming it in both a formal and informal way.

Name It in a Common Language

This process is the same for all human beings. Our children who are not able to easily access spoken language will also need to name things in a language that is accessible and meaningful to them. This language may be tactile. As we’ve discussed earlier, a formal tactile language may not yet exist. This means a common tactile language will be co-created as we go through our name it process. (Note: though American Sign Language can be adapted for tactual signing, the language in and of itself is based on visual experience and not tactual experience.  The ProTactile movement, though very meaningful to deafblind individuals who have language, as yet has not been used in most educational settings with children who are congenitally deafblind. It will be interesting to see how this approach may benefit children who are congenitally deafblind.)

After we have noticed our partner’s attention and affirmed that we’ve heard them, we also need to know that we are speaking in a common language. A language form that is accessible and meaningful for everyone. A common language enables us to establish mutual meaning: seeing something, acknowledging it and putting a name to it.

This common language could be a gesture that is meaningful to both partners. It could be a sound that is descriptive. It could even be a movement or an object that is part of the experience. By symbolically representing the actions, objects, or people who are part of an experience, we are putting a name to those things.  As we encounter these things together and name them together, we are engaging in the process of co-creating a formal language. We are providing organization and categorization to the many things we might encounter every day.   

Ray, Go, Go, Go!

In this video we see Ray and his teacher, Chris, traveling to the cafeteria together. Ray is just starting to understand that sound has meaning, more specifically speech to meaning. They practiced before this time saying “hug” and then giving a big hug – pairing speech with the experience of hug. In this video, which happened shortly after his “hug” experience, Chris says, “Go, go, go” he imitates Chris vocally. He may not have made a complete connection with the experience and the words, but he is engaged and excited about the conversation Chris and he are having. This is the “naming it” process where Chris builds a bridge between the phrase “go, go, go” and the experience.

We Will Rock You

In the video example below, the student Preston’s spoken language is hard to understand. His teacher Julie is trying to puzzle it out. She is an excellent observer. See how she is noticing and affirming all of the topics and comments that Preston is sharing. Julie is interested in what Preston has to say, and because of this, he absolutely loves talking with her.

They are communicating with spoken words, tactile sign, tactile-body feedback, and movements that are all accessible and part of the common language they both share. This conversation is very fluid and fast. Leadership and topic shift many times. Even though some of Preston’s language is hard for Julie to understand, she is able to repair these breakdowns in understanding by remaining actively engaged and by following Preston’s lead.  Preston knows that Julie is a safe and trusted person who will listen, respond, and when necessary, repair communication breakdowns so that he can be a more successful and confident communicator.

The Queen song, “We will rock you”, is being used as a framework to create a narrative for their conversation. Notice how Julie uses the rhythm and rhyme of the song as part of their common language. We might say that their conversation is musical. Imagine how this interaction becomes so much richer for Preston as Julie claps, stomps her feet, and sings along with Queen. The tactile-bodily and auditory input must feel amazing… In Julie, Preston has an interaction partner that is very skilled in talking his language, while also building a bridge to a more formal language.

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