When you’re working with a child with a language gap, the temptation is to just pour language into them like there’s no tomorrow… and the assumption is partially correct. Constant narration of daily events and stimulation in a language rich environment is crucial to helping our children “make up for lost time” and eliminate the disparities between their chronological age and their language abilities.
…there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” When we over-talk, we are bombarding a child with language without giving them proper time to process the incoming information. This leads to communication breakdowns and frustration for the child.
For example, consider the infamous “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel decide to go to work in a chocolate factory. At first, when the conveyor belt is running at an appropriate pace, Lucy and Ethel manage to keep up relatively well with the demands of their job. This is similar to when we give a child an appropriate amount of language stimulation — input that is rich in content, intonation, prosody, etc. and is delivered at an appropriate rate and level of difficulty for the child — simple enough so that he will understand, yet just difficult enough to challenge him to take his skills to the next level. This is the ideal.
When that breaks down, however…
…you’ve reached communication overload. The “conveyor belt” of your language input is going way too fast, and the child, instead of having time to digest the incoming information and produce an appropriate language output, is simple trying to keep his head above water as you barrage him with endless, not-so-helpful, suggestions.
So, chocolate factories aside, what should you do in real life? Consider the following two interactions, between “Joey” and his father:
DAD: Joey, what’s this? (points to a toy)
…waits 1 second
DAD: What is it?
…waits one more second
DAD: Joey, see this toy? What is this toy? What’s the name of this toy?
…waits one more second. Dad sees that Joey has a glazed-over look in his eyes and, even if he did know the name of the toy before, is so overwhelmed by the linguistic bombardment he has just experienced, that he certainly isn’t going to know the name now! Dad decides, incorrectly, to give Joey the name for the toy, and then have Joey repeat after him as Dad says the name of the toy four or five times. Dad leaves the situation assuming that he has just “taught” Joey about that toy. Joey leaves confused. All he wanted to do was play!
DAD: Oh, look, Joey, what’s this?
…waits THIRTY SECONDS OR MORE for Joey to give an answer. At this point, he may give an answer, or, if not, Dad should provide CLUES to lead him in the right direction. The end goal is not that Joey repeats the word correctly, but that he builds a cognitive base for the concept of the referent (the actual toy) and the label (the English, or whatever language, word for that toy) in his brain. We are building BRAINS, not word robots, here!
Thirty seconds isn’t that bad, is it? Time yourself. For adults, who are processing language at lightening speed, this seems like an eternity. I’m impatient myself, I know it’s difficult… but it’s NECESSARY. Children, especially children with a language delay and/or very little hearing experience, do not process language as quickly as we do, and we need to allow them time to work on their language processing skills instead of compounding the problem with incessant restating and rephrasing of the question. Restating and/or rephrasing are GREAT skills, but only after the listener has been given time to “digest” the original message, and it is clear that he or she needs additional help or information.
So, yes, you should narrate, narrate, narrate EVERYTHING in your child’s environment, but you should also take time to stop, reflect, and LISTEN. When you give your child an opportunity to process language input, you just might be surprised by what the come up with in reply!