As parents and professionals who work with children with hearing loss, we become expert listeners and communication decoders. That endless string of syllables? We can interpret that! That mosh of real words and unintelligible phonemes? No problem, we’ve got it covered. With our familiar ears, we often know what our children want to say, even if an unfamiliar listener hasn’t got a clue.
…and that’s the problem. Unless we expect our children to spend their whole lives talking to a select group of very familiar, very forgiving listeners, we have to start giving them the tools they need to make themselves understandable to any listener, at any time, on any topic. First, we have to give them the access to sound and listening and spoken language strategies designed to maximize their spoken language outcomes. That’s a given. But we can also encourage more intelligible speech in everyday conversational interactions with out children. How? We have to stop listening so hard ourselves! You, as a loving adult invested in this child’s life, may be willing to fill in the gaps, use context clues, and piece together a message out of an imperfect string of words and syllables, but will the man behind the bank counter, or the person asking for directions in the street? Probably not. It’s harsh, but it’s the real world, and we do our children a disservice if we do not prepare them adequately to face it.
As much as we hate to do it, it is perfectly okay to tell a child, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” That said, it should be followed with some scaffolding and suggestions for the child on how to make himself understood:
“Can you say it again?”
“What does that mean?”
“Can you describe it?”
This approach is best used in a communicative interaction that is otherwise UNchallenging for the child. If she is an expert in the ways of dollhouse, knows all of the vocabulary and concepts, and just loves to talk about it, use that interaction to push her conversational skills to the next level. Conversely, if you’ve just introduced a brand new task with new vocabulary and concepts, hold off on pushing for perfect accuracy.
It is also important to realize when and when not to take this approach. When the child is hurt, excited, angry, or trying to convey some crucial information, focus on meaning, NOT speech. A child’s emotions and the content of his communication are more important in these crucial interactions. When a child has tried and tried with a word, and is extremely frustrated, it takes a finely-tuned sense of judgment to decide whether or not one more push for correct production is worthwhile.
The main point is this — don’t make every conversation “baby-proofed” for your child. Instead, use natural consequences (the listener not understanding) to encourage him to push his skills to the next level.