A Book Review: Constructing Language

Language and Autism

RDI® has been influenced by many researchers, one of which is Michael Tomasello.

His book “Constructing a Language: a Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition” has helped us understand many things.

Published by Harvard University Press in 2003, it remains a seminal work for professionals and parents who are interested in a road map for understanding social pragmatic communication and typical development.

For parents of children on the spectrum, the social use of verbal and nonverbal communication is always problematic.

Somewhat confusing, are those persons with autism who speak, often with large vocabularies, quite early on; likewise-as a polar opposite, problems of communication when children have little or no language at all.

Since the early work of Lovaas (based on Skinner’s idea) that, “young children learn pieces of language by means of instrumental conditioning” (p.2) an enormous industry has sought to use this methodology to teach children to talk.

Language first, communication later.

Language and Communication

Picture this however.

I am having pizza with my daughter when a father reaches down to pick up a barely-walking, young child.

A terrible nose bump into the father’s forehead results in shrieks of painful crying.

Within this context, the father picks the little boy up to hug, pat, and comfort while saying, “Daddy is so sorry he hit your nose, let Daddy kiss your nose, your nose will feel better in a minute.”

Teaching specific words within this context, vis a vis, instrumental conditioning, would have seemed odd if not cruel.

And yet, this father actually provided – through the child’s ability for intention reading and joint attention – a usage-based approach to both communication and language.

Related: The Guiding Relationship: What Experts Say

Through this seminal body of work Tomasello develops an insight based on what modern psychologists now better understand.

That learning does not develop from isolated associations, but rather, it is a process highly integrated in “cognitive and social cognitive skills.”

I might also add that if you read Tomasello, you will understand that when your child says “phone,” it means that she wants to talk, or pick it up, or has heard it ring, or is naming it; that she is using a “holophrase”.

Highly recommended.


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