Are You Flexible?

Accomplished language users know that there are multiple ways to communicate the same message.  You could say, “I’m hungry” or I could say, “I’m starving/ famished/ peckish”  You could bluntly accuse someone of overreacting or gently prod them with, “Hey!  Don’t have a cow!”  You could ask a question directly, “Can you please turn on the air conditioning?” or as an indirect request, “It’s kind of hot in here, don’t you think?”  You may not be able to do the splits, but if you can say one thing in many different ways, you have an even more valuable skill: linguistic flexibility.


Children with hearing loss are at particular risk for not developing linguistic flexibility.  There are many possible reasons to explain this.  Sometimes, we fall into a trap of thinking that if a child with hearing loss can make it through the day and navigate everyday communication needs successfully, then we’ve “made it.”  But scratch the surface, or put the child in a new situation, or introduce more complex language than what it takes to get through a regular day, and the child flounders.  Other times, a child with hearing loss is a “high performer” in structured tasks but struggles with flexibility because of limited access to incidental language.  Improved hearing technology and use of assertive systems like FMs and soundfields does a lot to make up for this “overhearing disadvantage,” but we still need to actively teach listening skills to make sure our children hone that eavesdropping ability.  It’s not snooping… it’s language learning!


Linguistic flexility makes the difference between someone who has learned to talk  and someone who has learned to express himself.  Talking gets you through the day.  You have the basics, you can meet your regular needs.  Self-expression helps you get along socially, understand and adapt to different language use, succeed academically, and be more “with it” in conversation.  Remember, auditory verbal therapy is not about creating parrots, it’s about giving children the tools to express themselves and fully engage with the world.


What makes a language user “flexible”?

  • Synonyms and Categories: do you know many words to express various degrees of tired (drowsy, exhausted, beat, etc.)?  Do you know that the four legged, furry animal is not just a dog but a collie, dachshund, retriever, etc.?  Can you tell me about different types of clothing (satin, silk, cotton…)?

  • Non-literal language:  Are you a black and white thinker or can you use colorful language like metaphors (It’s a sauna in here!), similes (I’m as proud as a peacock), or idioms (Don’t cry over spilled milk)?

  • Multiple syntactic structures:  Do you know just one way to express a thought, or can you switch around the elements of a sentence to say the same thing in many different ways (“She pushed him” and “The boy was pushed by the girl” tell us the same information, but do you know that/can you say it both ways)?


Remember that the best language is caught, not taught.  What are some ways to encourage linguistic flexibility?

  • You don’t learn language from a flashcard, you learn it by first having great auditory access to conversational and incidental language and second being immersed in an environment that provides many opportunities to hear this kind of “flexible” language.

  • Get rid of “tired words.”  If you always say, “Shut the door,” change to “Close the door.”  Replace, “All done!” with, “We’re finished,” or, “This activity is complete!”  Once your child knows what an apple is, talk about different colors or types of apples.  Never stop building on that vocabulary!

  • Read lots of books!  Authors are excellent at using non-literal, descriptive language.

  • Tell jokes.  This is another way to practice multiple meanings in a very natural and fun conversational way.

  • Team up with an AVT who has knowledge of language structures.  You may use a variety of grammatical forms throughout the day without even thinking about it, and your child may understand these structures but not be using them independently.  A professional who is knowledgeable about language development may be able to pinpoint these and help you develop ways to integrate them into your child’s spoken language.  A good guide can point you to the next milestone on your way.

One thought on “Are You Flexible?

  1. This is so important. Glad to have a term to use when describing the importance of “linguistic flexibility;” thank you!

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