Photo Credit: Rifka Schonfeld

There are no handles upon a language
Whereby men take hold of it
And mark it with signs for its remembrance.
It is a river, this language,
Once in a thousand years
Breaking a new course
Changing its way to the ocean.
It is mountain effluvia
Moving to valleys
And from nation to nation
Crossing borders and mixing.
Languages die like rivers.
Words wrapped round your tongue today
And broken to shape of thought
Between your teeth and lips speaking
Now and today
Shall be faded hieroglyphics
Ten thousand years from now.
Sing – and singing – remember
Your song dies and changes
And is not here tomorrow
Any more than the wind
Blowing ten thousand years ago
Carl Sandburg



Carl Sandburg’s poem points to an essential challenge in human interaction: how do we communicate with each other when languages change all the time? Sandburg highlights the way that our languages can last for thousands of years, and also change on a daily basis. What do you do if you speak a forgotten language? What do you do if you can’t communicate with others?

Even between people who speak the same language, there can be misunderstandings and miscommunication. Sometimes, two people can walk away from a conversation, lecture, or discussion and believe that the speaker presented completely disparate ideas. How can identical sentences mean entirely different things to different people?

The truth is, communication is a lot more than the words we say or even how we say them. Research has shown that language is also interpreted by the listener. In other words, the meaning is decoded or unraveled depending on the experiences of the person who is hearing the words. This is especially true when dealing with people who suffer from social disorders or learning disabilities.

Among the groups who are most affected by language are those with Down Syndrome, Aspergers Syndrome, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


Down Syndrome

Down Syndrome is a chromosomal disorder caused by the presence of all or part of an extra 21st chromosome. Often Down syndrome is associated with some impairment of cognitive ability and physical growth. Dr. Sue Buckley, a pioneer in Down Syndrome research and education, writes about language development with children who have Down Syndrome:

“Despite a wide range of individual differences, most children are late in saying their first words, their vocabulary grows more slowly than in ordinary children and although they use the same range of two-word phrases as all children, they have difficulty in mastering the many rules for talking in grammatically correct sentences.

“This leads to the speech of many teenagers and adults with Down syndrome being restricted to short telegraphic utterances (keywords without the function words, for example “went swimming Dad” rather than “I went swimming last night with my Dad”). They also tend to have difficulty in pronouncing words clearly.”

So, how do these difficulties in language production impair language reception? Studies show that often children with Down syndrome feel that they do not have close confidants with whom they can share their feelings. Sometimes, this can mean that children will not be as emotionally mature as their peers. Because of this delay in emotional maturity, children with Down syndrome will begin to have trouble understanding others when they discuss sensitive or sophisticated topics.


Same Words = Same Story: Down Syndrome


            Down Syndrome Education International suggests several ways to increase children’s understanding of language:

            Early Conversation: All children learn from conversation with their parents even when they are unable to respond to the person speaking. As children grow, adults should try to appropriately expand two and three word utterances, encourage conversational sequences and avoid asking closed questions.

            Sign Language: Especially important for those children with Down syndrome who have hearing loss, sign language can help reduce the negative effects of production delay and keep up the rate of vocabulary production.

            Symbols and print: Visual language can help children who do not have strong auditory or short-term memory skills. Print is a very powerful tool for language teaching as the child can be taught to read, understand and practice grammatically and syntactically correct utterances.


Aspergers Syndrome

Asperger’s Syndrome was first described in the 1940s by Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who noticed that he had many patients with deficient social and communicative skills even though they had normal language production and cognitive abilities. If children with Aspergers are able to speak at the same level as other children their age, why do they have trouble with language reception?

The answer lies in non-verbal communication. Those with Aspergers have trouble producing and interpreting facial expressions, body language, and gestures. They usually want to fit in and interact with others – but simply do not know how to do that. They may be socially awkward, not pick up on social cues, or show a lack of empathy. Often, this lack of eye contact will impart a disinterest in conversation.


Same Words = Same Story: Aspergers Syndrome


            Visuals: children with Asperger’s are visual learners and visual thinkers. Therefore, visuals serve to enhance comprehension when new information is presented. Some examples of visuals to aid comprehension are:

Color coding
Cue cards
Hand signals
Lists of rules
Signs with key words and phrases


These visuals focus attention, provide back-up information, create organization and structure, and make concepts more concrete (rather than abstract). Therefore, backing up traditional verbal learning with these different visual cues can help children with Asperger’s better understand the person who is speaking to them.


            Reframing: If your child misinterprets a situation, using language to “reframe” the situation can provide your child with necessary tools to interpret it correctly in the future. Using “key words” can help the child reframe multiple situations. Some samples of key words that children with Asperger’s might find helpful are:

“Off the topic” – if a child’s response is not relevant to the discussion.

“Say one thing” – if a child is giving much more information than required for the question asked.

“In your head” – if a child says a statement that could be hurtful to others and is better kept to himself.

“Use your words” – encourages a child to use language rather than a physical reaction to frustration.

“Looking and listening” – promotes eye contact and attention.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

ADHD is a common behavioral disorder that affects between 8-10% of school age children. Boys are three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD. Dr. Richard Kingsley of KidsHealth explains, “Kids with ADHD act without thinking, are hyperactive, and have trouble focusing. They may understand what’s expected of them but have trouble following through because they can’t sit still, pay attention, or attend to details.”

Parents who have children with ADHD often find that their child fails to communicate using effective language. Because a symptom of ADHD is a reluctance to communicate, they will not explore their ability to vocalize, learn new sounds, or listen to the language spoken around them – ultimately leading to delays in language acquisition. This inability to express themselves can lead to frustration and anger. For many children with ADHD, there is a vicious cycle of a refusal to communicate and then the aggravation that comes along with the inability to articulate what they feel.


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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at [email protected].