Speech and the Language Sundae

In addition to being bouncy, our speech therapist Buffy was also into slaying anything that interfered with speech and language development.

A playful area rug on the floor, a foot massage with fragrant lotion, a little song performed as though Lei’s toddler feet were microphones: thus began her early speech therapy sessions. Her speech therapist was petite, perky, blond Buffy, a person worthy of sharing a name with the Vampire Slayer. Her approach to speech therapy was to get the child’s nervous system regulated, to give them all the sensory input they needed, to get the muscles of their mouths and faces all working in perfect concert, and only then work on speech. She was (and is) the best.

All this laying of foundation taught me something about speech and language.

Speech and speech therapy can be hot-button issues among deaf and hard-of-hearing (d/hh) people. Hearing parents, teachers and therapists want young d/hh kids to speak clearly so they can be understood by hearing people. For that reason, most d/hh children spend a LOT of time in speech therapy, learning to produce sounds they may not be able to hear. But members of Deaf culture often advocate for d/hh children to get whole language access through American Sign Language (ASL), then learn English as a second language (a.k.a. the bilingual-bicultural approach), with expressive speech being less valued.

Although Lei is mostly oral in her day-to-day life, meaning she uses listening, lipreading and speaking to communicate, and while I’m grateful that her speech is intelligible to most people, clear speech is not my top priority for her. My top priority for her is language.

(Well, my top top priority is for her to progress as a spiritual being, identifying herself as such and having that core truth guide her choices in life. Since you asked. But I digress.)

Ice cream sundae
The Language Sundae, with clear speech as the cherry right up on top.

Clear expressive speech, is like the cherry on top of the language sundae. The creamy, delicious foundation of a sundae is ice cream, right? That ice cream is language, and it does come in different flavors, like oralism, bilingual-bicultural, cued speech or total communication. Without access and exposure to the family’s language, through signing, reading or listening, the child cannot lay the foundation for cognitive and emotional development. Once the foundation of access and exposure is laid, a child exposed to whole language – its vocabulary, grammar and syntax – will expand his vocabulary through continued exposure and growing mastery. Let’s call that growing mastery as the hot fudge (or caramel, if you insist). And then, you add the whipped cream: A child who has whole language exposure and mastery can express himself in any way he’s comfortable, whether signing, writing or speaking. First access and exposure, then growing mastery, then expression. And for some, clear speech.

Clear speech is only one way of expressing language. But as Buffy the Speech Therapist taught me as she laid the foundation for speech production, without a strong language base, the speech issue is moot.

And if a child doesn’t share a language with his family, doesn’t have access to a whole language, or isn’t being understood in his most comfortable expressive mode, he is likely to feel alienated and isolated. Clear speech is fine, but we can’t lose sight of the big picture.

Let’s focus on loving our kids, boosting their language acquisition, and making sure the channels of communication are wide open. They’ll eventually speak clearly, or they won’t. Either way, they’ll have the foundation they need to go out and be part of the world.

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