It’s Christmas! Let’s Talk Turkey – or Maybe Not…

I guess it’s officially the Christmas season according to my good friends at SiriusXM Radio. I know because two weeks when I turned on to channel 17, the Love Channel, I discovered it’s now been replaced by the Holly Channel, a selection of music that ranges;

…from contemporary holiday music to traditional favorites, make the Christmas party hop with songs by Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Richard Marx, Gloria Estefan Colbie Caillat, Josh Groban, Michael Buble and more.

Justin Bieber? He’s old enough to have recorded a selection of Christmas classics? Ye Gods, am I old!

SiriusXM Holly channel

SiriusXM Holly Channel

It seems that in a massive US cultural shift, Thanksgiving is no longer the definitive opening day for the seasonal mayhem. Sure, Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving – will remain the canonical capitalists’ wet dream for the foreseeable future but I’m pretty sure I’ve been seeing Christmas trees and decorations in the shops for a few weeks already. The new marker is probably Labor Day, which, for the non-US reader, is at the beginning of September. You might not be allowed to wear white fashionably after Labor Day but you can now whip out the Christmas tree and starting playing “We Three Kings” over the store PA system.

It’s also the time of year when therapists are tempted to whip up a new collection of symbols and pages for their clients using AAC systems. After all, there’s a whole bunch of new and exciting words that can be added, such as “Santa,” “holly,” “reindeer,” “mistletoe,” “turkey,” “engorged,” “egg nog,” and “pass-me-the-remote-I’m-too-heavy-to-move.” Why, I even typed in “Christmas vocabulary” into Google and found a number of sites that offered me a selection of words I hadn’t even considered. How could I forget such essentials as “frankincense,” “myrrh,” “poinsettia,” “solstice,” “yule,” “dreidel” and “Scrooge.” [1]

Alistair Simm - Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge - Alistair Simm

But before you are tempted to spend many happy hours creating such lists, downloading images, programming pages, and all that good stuff, consider the difference between a REFERENTIAL and a DESCRIPTIVE teaching approach.

A referential approach focuses on the identification and naming of things. If you have a set of symbols for “chimney,” “cranberry,” “fir,” and “snowflake,” teaching your client to nominate each of these by pointing at the picture or pressing a button on a speech-generating device is referential: you are pairing a word with a referent. In contrast, a descriptive approach would focus on having a client use vocabulary that talks about items, not just labeling them.

Let’s look at a concrete example with just two words; “reindeer” and “tree.”

reindeer tree

 You can add the REINDEER to your system – whether that’s a manual board, a flipbook, or a device – and then procede to teach it. Do whatever you have to do to make that link between the picture, the sound of the word, and the things “out there” that pulls Santa’s sleigh or ends up served with gravy on a plate. (What? You didn’t know reindeer is a food? Sorry to crush any “Bambi” or “Rudolph” fantasies there!)

Then you can move on to do the same for TREE, with modeling, imitating, generating, and generalizing as target behaviors. And at the end of this, your client will have learned “reindeer” and “tree.”

But if you want to get more bang for buck, why not switch it up a little and worry more about teaching words that can be used to talk about reindeer and tree. For example, “Tell me about a tree” can be answered using words like “big,” “tall,” “green,” “hard,” “grow,” “it,” and so on. Pointing at a picture of a tree and asking “What’s this?” has one response; “tree.” [2]

Before folks start foaming at the mouth and calling me an “anti-nounist,” let’s be clear that nouns are, and always will be, an important part of a vocabulary. Nouns are the largest part of the English lexicon, so no system can avoid them. However, because nouns are (a) easy to picture and (b) seem so fundamental to our lives, it’s possible to develop a noun bias when designing AAC systems. [3] Once you acknowledge this can happen, it becomes easier to think about using nouns as a core-word pivot for teaching more generic, more useful, higher frequency common words. [4]

And finally, good news on the Christmas music front: I’ve been listening to the Holly Channel while writing this and so far, no Justin Bieber. And if I didn’t have the words “Justin Bieber” available in an AAC system, I could use it as a core-word pivot and say “He is not who I like. I want him to go away. He is short, he is small, and I don’t think he can sing. I think I am too old to like him and that is not a bad thing.”

Notes
[1] If you’re looking for a fun Christmas movie, you should consider the under-rated but deliciously dark Scrooged with Bill Murray. There are some wonderful one-liners and Murray, as always, is the master of timing and facial expression.

[2] One of the more enduring concepts that has come from psychoanalysis into everyday consciousness is that of encouraging someone to talk about themselves and their feelings. “Tell me about your mother” as opposed to “Which parent screwed you up more?” results in a much richer sample of language for the analyst. By the same token, asking “Tell me about ‘trees'” will force a response semantically richer than “What’s that tall, woody thing with leaves?”

[3] I suggest that the noun bias in picture-based AAC system is an artificial construct driven by the nature of the medium being used – pictures on paper, in books, or on a device. Because nouns are inherently easier to represent pictorially than other parts of speech (try drawing “mouse” then “something” and you’ll see the challenge), the bias towards nouns is therefore built-in to the system. I doubt anyone actually sits down and thinks, “Let’s see if I can create a set of pictures with thousands of nouns” but like a train on the tracks, the rails already point you toward a particular destination.

[4] Rather than treating a noun as “the name of a person, place, or thing,” recasting it as a core-word pivot turns it into word that “functions in relation to other words in different grammatical classes, and signals relationships between them.” If you use the word “tree” to also trigger associations with “tall,” “plant,” “grow,” “green” and so on, you’re actually teaching a fundamental property of language – that words can have both denotative and connotative references. If someone didn’t learn this basic notion, then they wouldn’t be able to comprehend metaphor; and metaphor is language. A second value of treating nouns as core-word pivots is that you have a metric to help you decide what nouns to choose; those that pivot more core are better.

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One response to “It’s Christmas! Let’s Talk Turkey – or Maybe Not…

  1. I think this is good advice and information for teaching vocabulary; period. (that doesn’t look as good on paper as it sounds in conversation). Regardless of using AAC, sign language, speech, or whatever to communicate, this is a great idea and well put!

    As an aside, we’re (Southern Ontarians) sorry for Justin Bieber, but he’s at least a really NICE kid when you see him in interviews…

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