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The recipe for understanding: How do we communicate with children with language difficulties?

strategies for language difficulties

Have you ever been stuck in a foreign country without any understanding of the language and found yourself in a curly predicament? How did it feel? What did you do to work through it?

The longest hour of my life was spent on a recent trip to China where I recall instantly the sheer distress in trying to find my platform at a frantically busy train station in Guangzhou. It was naive and indeed arrogant of me to expect some English translations on signs. Without access to wifi and the two words: ‘blue’ and ‘bubbles’ in Mandarin, I very quickly found myself with beetroot cheeks and a swarm of locals surrounding me believing that speaking loudly would help my understanding of what they were saying!

After a very high dose of anxiety and embarrassment, I eventually found myself on the train and swearing to never get myself into a pickle like that again. However, it did get me thinking about what life would be like if that situation was a child’s every day reality. Fortunately for me, my experience of humiliation and discombobulation ended that day but for so many of my clients these feelings would be continuous.

Being unable to understand what others are saying to you is such a frustrating and isolating experience. So what do we do? How can we best learn to communicate to those who don’t understand language? How do we help children who struggle to understand us? What is the recipe?

There are a few ingredients:

  1. Less is more. Keep it short, sharp and simple! The simpler we make it, the easier it is!

  2. Make it salient. Emphasise what you say. Ever wonder why your toddler always manages to repeat that swear word that slips out! (I’m not judging!) It’s because it comes out with emphasis. It’s a pretty dramatic affair when we say it. We are all more likely to understand and retain words that stand out to us. So bring out the stage curtains and make it dramatic!

  3. Slow down people! We go through life too quickly. If we want children to understand us, we need to make the time to slow down, so that they have an opportunity to understand us. Words can fly over us so easily. Keep it slow and steady. We all need time to process.

  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat! I know it might be boring for you and I know you feel a bit silly but it really does make a difference. People learn through repetition. Children need to hear words being said over and over again in order for them to sink in.

  5. Try and show them what you are talking about! It is so much easier to understand what someone is saying when they are showing you what they are talking about. Use the objects, use natural gestures, point to what you are talking about, show pictures where appropriate. Do whatever you can to help your child build associations with what you are saying. This will help them understand you.

  6. Try hard to stay calm and positive. It can be hard to maintain a smiley disposition and have a happy voice when you yourself might be getting anxious and frustrated. We don’t want our interactions with children to be negative. If you find your stress levels rising your child will notice and feed off this tension, go into 'shut down mode' and be less inclined to want to attempt to communicate with you. Try to stay with them during this time.

Learning language can be a long and challenging process that requires great determination and perseverance. There is no quick fix, but with patience and persistence, great rewards and success are sure to follow. “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” A.A Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh.

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