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Simplifying Language

Updated: May 9, 2023

We all use some form of motherese with children; raising our pitch and intonation and using melodic language is a natural way that we communicate with our very little ones. However, we want to be careful in the way that we use and model language, so that we ensure that children are hearing language in its natural form. Hence, I’m going to steer you away from what is known as:

Telegraphic speech

You may not have heard the term before; it’s quite technical. But you’ve probably heard it in action. Telegraphic speech is the concept of shortening or simplifying language, by reducing the number of words or grammatical elements within a sentence or phrase. People often use telegraphic speech with young children or children with challenges in their comprehension or expression, because they think it will help them understand a message, question, or direction, while highlighting the “important” words. Here are some examples of telegraphic speech:

  • “Ball down” (to represent: “The ball goes down.”)

  • “Baby eat” (to represent: “The baby’s eating.”)

  • “Doggy run” (to represent: The doggy’s running.”)

  • “Put in” (to represent: “Put the giraffe in the box.”)

Let’s break one of those down: “Put in”

Daria Gates pediatric speech therapy in Beacon NY play-based therapy for children, family centered therapy for children, speciality in autism, communication disorders, late talker, children with special needs, and early intervention

What you’re really saying is that you want your child to put the giraffe into the box, whether you’re cleaning up, playing a game, or putting animals to bed.

When you shorten this idea to “put in,” you’re taking away important pieces of language that we do want children to

hear, process, learn, and eventually use. It also removes some important qualifiers that provide more information (e.g., giraffe, box).

Now how about our kiddos who have trouble comprehending language?

I often get the question, “But they can’t understand long sentences, so aren’t I helping them by simplifying what I say?” That is a very valid question, and understandable, considering people often don’t know how to help their little ones understand, and it seems like a good way to give them what we think are the “key” parts of the sentence.

Research, expert clinical opinion, and informal case studies show otherwise! Using the full phrase or sentence does not make it harder for your child to understand. In fact, children developing language are able to take the qualifying parts of the sentence (such as, “giraffe”, “in”, and “box”) and use them to process and comprehend what you said. They do this while also taking in the other grammatical elements. Isn’t the brain AMAZING?! Children with difficulties in language comprehension and expression benefit from natural, grammatically appropriate language models.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about other ways of simplifying our language, while still maintaining appropriate grammatical structure...

We know that language development and learning may not happen as easily for children with language challenges; they might be learning language at a slower rate or even in a different way, so what are some other ways we can help? How can we simplify our language and make what we say more purposeful, without compromising grammar?

If you have a long direction to give, break it down into simple parts and be specific:

  • Instead of: “Go get your coat and put on your socks and shoes…”

    • Try: “Put on your coat, then your socks.” once they’ve done this… “Now let’s put on your shoes.”

  • Instead of: “Go clean up; it’s time for dinner. Don’t forget to wash your hands and then come sit down.”

    • Try: “Put the legos in the bin, wash your hands, then sit at the table.”

      • If that is too hard, break the direction down even more → “Put the legos in the bin.” When they are finished... “Wash your hands, then sit at the table.”

      • Extra tip** If routines like this are challenging, try drawing this simple plan on a whiteboard or piece of paper (e.g., Draw numbers and picture representations for: 1. Clean up legos, 2. Wash your hands, 3. Sit at the table)

If you want to ask a question, focus on just the question; if you have information to share, give ample wait time before asking the question.

  • Instead of: “We’re having pasta for dinner; what do you want on the side? Do you want broccoli or carrots?”

    • Try: “We’re having pasta for dinner.” then wait… then say... “Do you want broccoli or carrots on the side?”

      • Extra tip** Hold up the broccoli, then carrots as you ask this question

If you want to comment on your play or what you’re doing in the moment, use short, descriptive sentences.

  • Instead of: “Oh no, watch out, the door’s open and the dog’s going to get out of the house! I hope he doesn’t get out, be careful!”

    • Try: “Oh no, the door is open!” then wait and see what your child says. Then try, “The dog might get out!” then wait again and see what your child says.

  • Instead of: “Oh the baby’s crying, she’s hungry and wants her food, let’s give her some carrots and peas.”

    • Try: “The baby’s crying.” then wait and see what your child says. Then try, “I think she’s hungry.” then wait and see what your child says.

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