Name It: Building the Bridge to Formal Language

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

When we share joint attention with a child, we go a step further to signal that we are joining the conversation. We do this by naming what the child is interested in and commenting on, and this starts 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.

After we have established joint attention and we’ve affirmed that we’ve heard the other person, we have to be speaking in a common language. This common language helps us to start to establish mutual meaning: seeing something, acknowledging it and putting a name to it.

This mutual language is a step towards formal language (spoken or signed), but may not be there yet. It could be a gesture that is meaningful to you both or even a sound that is descriptive. It could even be a movement or an object that is part of the experience. You’re symbolically representing the actions, objects, or people who are part of the experience even though it may not be in a formal language (spoken or signed). You’re putting a name to those things as you encounter them and go through this process by creating a common language.


We Will Rock You

In the video example below, the student Preston is hard to understand (in his spoken word), and the teacher Julie is trying to puzzle it out;  she’s observing, watching and piecing together what Preston wants to share with her.  One of the ways they’re having common dialogue is through the “We Will Rock You” song to add their own words.  It keeps them both engaged and connected, and it keeps that serve and return response going.  As they go along she names what she think he wants to discuss. 

Graphic Conversation "Graphic Conversation" by Marc Wathieu is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Graphic Conversation “Graphic Conversation” by Marc Wathieu is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

“By capturing different contexts of daily language interactions at home, we were able to show that adult speech to the child – but not speech simply overheard by the child – is important for vocabulary learning,” Weisleder said. “Mere exposure to speech directed to others or on TV is not enough to drive early vocabulary development. Toddlers learn language in the context of meaningful interactions with those around them.”

Talking directly to toddlers strengthens their language skills, Stanford research shows


Stanford Report, October 15, 2013

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.