The Link between Praxis and Language Development
Dejean, Director, Spectrum Tomates Center and Certified Tomatis
You walk into a
friend's house just as she has put her baby down for a nap. You are
about to speak when she places her finger in front of her lips and
says, "Shhhh." You sit down on the couch and wait quietly. Scenarios
like this happen every day: A mother gives her daughter the "thumbs up"
from across the room after a success; a youngster opens and closes his
fist to wave "bye-bye" to Daddy; construction workers in a noisy
environment use gestures and pointing instead of words to communicate
with each other.
communication occurs not only through words but also through symbolic
gestures. In fact, individuals can have an entire "conversation" and
never utter a single word.
Many experts feel that non-verbal symbolic communication is the
foundation of language development. The pre-linguistic child
communicates with her parents in a variety of ways in order to get what
she wants. If she's hungry, she may point to the refrigerator and then
to her mouth; if she's thirsty, she may point to her cup or make a
sipping sound. Even when she first begins to use words, she typically
uses a single word or sound to represent an entire action: "Hun-gee"
for I'm hungry or "Tup" for I want a drink in my cup.
Lack of language
development on the expected timetable can cause great concern to
parents and caregivers. In these situations, parents want to look for
signs of pre-verbal, intentional communication such as pointing. A
child who is intentionally communicating through non-verbal gestures is
likely getting ready to begin communicating verbally. A child who is
not may need to focus on developing non-verbal communication skills
before words can be expected. The use of symbolic communication:
intentional gestures: in pre-verbal children resembles the evolution of
what bridged the gap between the primate mind and the modern
representational mind can help us understand where some of this fails
to develop in the child with apraxia and language difficulties.
The Evolution of
Merlin Donald's book "Origins of the Modern Mind" details the
transition from primate cognition to human cognition without language,
to the emergence of language and the human culture. Humans did not
simply evolve a larger brain, an expanded memory, a vocabulary, or a
special speech apparatus; rather, we evolved new systems to represent
the world around us. In short, we developed symbols. No other animal
has ever invented a symbolic system: gesture or word to represent
something else in its natural environment. In fact, most animals cannot
use symbols at all. How then did we come to represent the world around
us in symbolic form?
First Came Episodic
The first type of cognition was episodic thought: or "memory of
episodes." Episodic thought is memory that is present in mammals and a
variety of other animals such as birds. In fact, it is highly evolved
in apes. In this type of thought, an event (episode) is remembered in a
literal, situation-specific manner. There is no reflection or
representation of these thoughts. However, episodic thought is useful
in many aspects of animal behavior. For example, a dog learns to sit on
command through repeated trials: the word "sit" is said, the dog is
placed in the seated position, and a treat is given. As the dog begins
to develop a "memory" of this activity, he learns to assume the seated
position when he hears the word "sit."
trials, the dog commits this episode to memory and thus responds
appropriately to the command. However, when the dog is not being asked
to sit, he is not thinking about sitting, nor is he remembering what it
was like to sit or wondering whether he'll be asked to sit again soon.
Children with apraxia and language challenges seem to use their
episodic memory well. In fact, this may explain why "discrete trial
format" approach is a successful intervention with these children: it
ostensibly helps the child develop a large repertoire of learned
skills. However, this is also one of the drawbacks of exclusively using
this system of learning.
Children need to learn to generalize beyond an episode so that they can
adapt to new situations. Mimetic Culture
For a period of about 1 millions years (according to Donald), humans
transitioned from episodic thought to symbolic communication as we know
it today. This intermediate stage is known as the Mimetic Culture: the
time in which pre-verbal humans began to communicate with each other
using "mime." Imagine spending the entire day using charades to
communicate with others and you have a pretty good idea of what the
mimetic culture may have been like. The objective of mime is to
represent an event. The famous mime Marcel Marceau used his body
movements and facial expressions to clearly represent words or
activities, charming his audiences with his ability to convey whole
stories without uttering a word.
Donald, "Mimetic thought is the ability to produce conscious,
self-initiated representational acts that are intentional but not
linguistic Mimesis is fundamentally different from imitation in that it
involves the invention of intentional representations." It is this
intentional communication that appears to be compromised in individuals
with apraxia. These children don't tend to use the kind of gesturing
that is present in mimetic thought structure.
Mimesis involves a wide variety of actions and modalities: tones of
voice, facial expressions, eye movements, manual signs and gestures,
postural attitudes, patterned whole-body movements (Donald): and
therefore requires multi-sensory processing (sensory integration) in
order to be carried out successfully.
This may be
another reason why some children do not engage in these pre-linguistic
forms of communication: the effort required to coordinate that many
body movements and sensory activities is more than they can put forth.
For example, many non-verbal children do not clap their hands since
hand clapping involves bilateral coordination (coordinating both sides
of the brain and body simultaneously). Since they cannot do the
gesture, they may also not fully understand the meaning of the gesture.
From Episodic To Mimetic To Symbolic
What led from mimetic thought to symbolic communication and language?
According to Donald, mimetic thought evolved quickly into a system of
standardized gestures. In other words, gestures became symbolic. When a
person puts her finger to her lips, it means the same thing to you as
it does to a Kalahari Bushman. However, it is not the same as acting
out an event; it is instead a gesture that represents "Be quiet."
Likewise, language is simply a group of symbols (letter/sounds) that
represent a thought or item. It is completely symbolic. Some
individuals do not have a developed capacity for symbolic thought and
therefore are not yet ready to use words to represent thoughts,
feelings, and actions. These individuals tend not to point or wave
"bye-bye." In fact, many may learn to wave "bye-bye" through discrete
trial, yet not fully grasp the meaning of what they are doing. It is
here that we see the connection between mimetic thought and praxis:
Praxis involves ideation, or the creation of an "idea" of what one
wants to do, followed by the organization and execution of a plan in
order to do it. Praxis allows for intentional, purposeful communication
and interaction with our world.
the pre-verbal aspect of intentional communication, is in some ways the
first step to intentional communication. It is critical, then, that
parents and professionals not skip over the pre-linguistic aspects of
communication when working on language development. Sometimes parents
(and professionals) are so focused on waiting for that precious first
word that they miss their child's pre-verbal communication. This
pre-verbal communication is the foundation for verbal communication and
deserves as much attention and enthusiasm. A non-verbal child who
suddenly begins to point to his cup for a drink is "asking" for his
cup. The words will likely follow in due time, but the pre-verbal
asking is just as significant.
Spectrum Center Can Help?
Pre-verbal children who go through the Spectrum Center program, often
develop intentional yet non-verbal communication prior to developing
language. These children become better able to coordinate their bodies
in order to communicate, and better able to process and use the sensory
messages they receive. This pre-linguistic communication is the
framework for the development of words and language. For many it is
only a short time before words emerge which join, embellish and
eventually replace the gestures. Once children experience the power of
their words, they become highly motivated to communicate. Auditory
stimulation combined with microphone work helps individuals to further
hone their newfound voices, as Listening Trainers assist with
vocabulary and sentence development. If you would like to know more
about how the Spectrum Center can aid in the development of
language and communication, please contact us at 1-877-4AUTKID.
William J. Kennick