Dr. Poirier shares great strategies for enhancing children’s language acquisition.
Until recently, the official definition of autism, per 1994’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (better known as DSM-IV), emphasized that the disorder often included language delays. As of 2013 and the publication of DSM-V, language delays are no longer considered a defining factor of autism. But that doesn’t mean that assisting the language development of a child with autism or a similar disorder (or any child, for that matter) is less important.
Language is one of the features that separates humanity from the rest of creation. It’s so much a part of us that it shapes how we think about almost everything, from the religious and scientific to the most mundane events of everyday life. The capacity for language may even be hardwired into our brains.
Along with our culture and our ability to adapt to almost anything, language is one of the things that makes us human. Anything that interferes with its development can damage a child’s ability to fit into society later in life.
The Social Importance of Language
How can language be so important that communication problems can damage your ability to fit in? It’s simple, if you think about it. At one level, if you can’t get your wants and needs across to other people, you can’t get those wants and needs completely fulfilled. That cuts you off from other people, especially if your needs are associated with physical closeness and companionship. At another level, other people may be unwilling to associate with you if you can’t talk to them in a way they can understand. This can isolate you, negatively affecting your social development. Even those willing to associate with you may not do so as often as they would if your language skills were better.
For that reason, language delays can be damaging, whatever the cause. This isn’t to say that you aren’t a complete human being if you can’t speak normally or at all; obviously, deaf and mute individuals are as human as you and I, and can have fulfilling, meaningful lives. But without help, the deaf and mute can become just as socially isolated as those whose language delays stem from cognitive deficits like those common to autism.
It’s easy to see that caregivers have to step in to help children, like the deaf and mute, acquire as much language as they can. The same is true of the cognitively delayed, whether those handicaps are profound (as in Down syndrome) or more subtle, as with autism. It’s not always as obvious that all children can use help acquiring language.
Let’s face it. Learning language is difficult, even for the youngest children. It literally takes a child years to get her birth language’s grammar, vocabulary, and syntax straight. Most children start talking before age two, and few are even relatively fluent by age 5. Some of this lengthy “acquisition period” derives from normal cognitive development unfolding. Some is probably just caused by the difficulty of the learning process. Admittedly, once one language is learned, it does seem relatively easy for a typically developing child to learn another in short order. This may be because she uses the first language as a sort of template to shortcut the learning process for the next.
Be that as it may, recent research has shown that children who have close, warm relationships with caregivers, including frequent conversations, tend to do better in school and have fewer social problems later in life. Even typically developing children, then, have better lives if they can communicate better. One way they learn to do so is to talk back and forth with their parents and other caregivers. This naturally sharpens their linguistic skills as they’re corrected by their parents for using improper language. The old “practice makes perfect” principle also plays a part.
So don’t hesitate to talk to your child, no matter how young. Urge her to converse with you. Engage in conversations about anything. Let her speak when she feels the urge, so she can aid in her own development. Even if your child doesn’t have any sort of developmental delay that interferes with language, talking with her can improve her life later on. Below are some of the strategies that can be used to improve language abilities in children.
- The caregiver talks about what the child is doing and describes what the child is playing with (e.g. the caregiver may say “you are rolling the ball.”)
- The caregiver performs an action or attends to an object while providing the words to describe it (e.g. I am washing the doll’s hair.)
- Repetition is a good strategy to facilitate language learning. Often an utterance is broken down into portions and then combined again (e.g. throw the ball over here…throw it…over here…throw it to me…give me that ball.)
- The caregiver expands on the child’s incomplete utterance (read book) and making it into a complete , adult-like sentence (mommy will read book)
- The caregiver takes a child’s sentence that is adult-like (I like the dog) and changes it to “You like the dog, don’t you?”
As children grow older, they rely less on simple strategies like parallel talk, repetition, and recasts of their partners’ utterances to maintain conversation. They become better at elaborating on topics and themes, engaging in lengthy casual conversations and debates or pretend play.
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