Should the Part Be Separated from the Whole?

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I recently made a change in my ‘day job’ – the one that pays the bills and lets me have time to muse about these things. I changed from pediatric home health to an early intervention position. Part of the reason for this change was to move from a per visit pay situation to a salaried position. But, the pros and cons of different business models is a discussion for another time.

The lack of DEI (that’s diversity, equity, & inclusion if you don’t already know) also needs some discussion. But, I’ll come back to this in a later post.

What I’d like to focus on here is the overwhelming prevalence of suggestions provided to families that the parts of language should be separated from the whole.

These suggestions include teaching parents and caregivers to model only the first sound of words for very young children. For example, parents are told they should model “w” “w” “w” when presenting “water” to their child. I *think* I see where that is coming from. I think it stems from the same idea that input to young children should be simplified to the point that it’s ungrammatical as a way to simplify the input for children with communication disorders. However, I find myself questioning this approach already.

Let’s go back to some basic definitions.

  1. The Fab 5 Areas of Oral Language are: Phonology; Morphology; Semantics; Syntax; and Pragmatics
  2. Phonology – the speech sounds and speech sound patterns of a given language/dialect. When we talk about phonology, we’re interested in the phomemes and phones of a given language. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in a language that signal a difference in word meaning. If a sound is a phoneme in a language, then changing it will change the meaning of the word. So, if you change the /k/ in “cat” to /f/, you’ve changed the word (and its meaning) from “cat” to “fat.” (Spoiler Alert: This is what gets stuck in my craw about modeling only the 1st sounds of words for very young children). Phones are how the phonemes are actually produced when they come out of your mouth. Changing the parts changes the whole.
  3. Morphology – the smallest units of meaning in a language. Here, we’re interested in morphemes. Examples of morphemes in English include plural -s and past tense -ed. Do morphemes sorta, kinda sound like phonemes? Guess what? You’re not far off. In English, most of the morphemes are what we call ‘bound.’ That is they are ‘bound’ to the root word (see semantics below). They don’t have much meaning on their own. We don’t learn them as separate entities. The part can’t be separated from the whole and still have much meaning to us.
  4. Semantics – is words and their concepts/meanings. A synonym of semantics is vocabulary. And, words are made up of phonemes and morphemes. Changing the parts – or in this case the part of speech – changes the meaning of the word. Take “Google” for instance. We can use it as a noun – “I looked it up on Google. It’s on the internet so it must be true.” We can use it as a verb – “I Googled (past tense -ed morpheme here) it. It’s all over the internet so it must be true.” Changing the part of speech changes how words can be used in an utterance.
  5. Syntax – the word order rules that govern a language. These are the rules in our heads that tell us if something is grammatical or not. We match what we or others say to this ‘template’ in our heads and decide if it’s grammatical or not. Syntax requires that the user have developed – wait for it – a solid foundation in phonology, morphology, and semantics. I know, you’re shocked, right?
  6. Pragmatics – the social use of language. Lots of things fall into this category, including eye contact, use of gestures, when you can cuss & when you shouldn’t, how far away you stand from someone in a position of higher or lower authority than you, etc. This isn’t as much of a concern for very young children – except for the eye contact & joint attention.

OK – Today’s CSD 101 – Typical Language Development review is over. What I hope you took away from it is that phonology, morphology, semantics, and syntax are interdependent and that the whole (language) is more than the sum of its parts.

Families are involved in early intervention because children are already behind developmentally. Sometimes, we know why (premie, Down syndrome, etc.), sometimes we learn later (autism spectrum disorder, lead exposure), and sometimes we never really know.

I ask again, why do we suggest ways to intervene with children who have communication disorders we would never use with children who are typically developing? Things can be simplified without making them ungrammatical or separating the parts from the whole. Why are we not teaching parents of young children to put the sound “w” back at the beginning of the word “water” where it belongs? “w” on its own has no meaning. Teaching a child to produce this sound in isolation does not help them learn to communicate in a meaningful way. However, teaching the child “water” paired with the sign for “water” and ensuring the adult is positioned so the child is looking at them is providing meaningful input. If the child is only able to produce “w” or “wa” that attempt should be recognized and the adult should again model the entire word “water.” But, parents must also be taught to set up opportunities for their children to use the skills they’re learning. That is, children need to have the opportunity to use their expressive language skills – in whatever form they take. It’s not all about labeling and narrating. If it were, families wouldn’t need our services.

I’ll hop off my soapbox. As always, thank you for reading. I look forward to your comments, thoughts, and suggestions.

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