What Makes a Good Communication System…Part 3

A bunch of text, including *(#! #W:# and similar text, to stylistically represent internet cuss word obfuscationI’ve written about what makes a good communication system.  This time, I want to talk about newspeak and why it’s important to include controversial words in a communication system.

(Previously, I wrote about the need for a way to say “no” and the need to be able to report abuse)

I remember a talk a few years ago at Autreat where an audience member, during a demonstration of various AAC equipment, talked about how she didn’t like that a device had an icon representing a popular fast food joint, since that was essentially free advertising of the chain, the chain had very unhealthy food, and a child with such a device would then be asking to go there more often, when its’ more desirable to go elsewhere.  I’m probably paraphrasing things wrong, which is why I’m keeping this somewhat vague.

I had a problem with that thinking.  Sure, a parent may decide it’s a bad idea to go to a fast food chain for their child, which is certainly a parent’s right (and, frankly, probably good for the kid’s health).  But eliminating the vocabulary to ask this is not encouraging communication, nor is it providing the same sort of teachable time that a child who speaks would present.  A parent has the right to say no to a child’s request.  And, in fact, parents do so quite often – for the good of their children.  Eventually children learn that some things are off-limits and that continued pestering of the parents will result in negative consequences.  As for the icon choice being free advertising, how else would you represent a fast food chain?  The brand logo seems like an obvious choice!  (note that I did agree with her that only including one fast food eatery isn’t a good idea – any system should strive to include multiple options.

There’s far more controversial things than fast food chains, though.  If you spoke during primary school, do you remember when you first said a naughty word?  For most of us, I’m guessing that was pretty much the first year we were at school.  Certainly most of us knew enough to not say it in front of the teacher (although some of us probably learned that one the hard way!).  In other words, we learned an proper time and place for cussing: you can laugh about the words with your friends on the playground, but don’t do it in front of any adults or any tattle tales!  This is a huge lesson when it comes to communication: language use should differ in different environments.

So, when should a child have cuss-words as part of their vocabulary, if they use a non-spoken language system?  The answer is, for parents and teachers: before you would like them to!  Certainly a school or parent shouldn’t spend hours teaching how to cuss, but the language should be subtly made available, and consequences of its’ use should also be made available!  If the child does cuss at mom to get a reaction, it’s entirely proper for mom to react – just not by eliminating vocabulary.

Likewise, when was the first time you might have talked to another kid about sex?  Once again, it was probably well before it was “age appropriate” in the eyes of parents (who probably would prefer those topics to wait some time).  A language system needs the words that a 13-year-old will use when secretly looking at Playboy magazines with another kid.  You might not want a 13-year-old to look at Playboys, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have the language to express himself.  You don’t duct tape the mouth of a typical child so he won’t talk about naughty pictures with a friend!

In 1984, George Orwell describes a future where words are eliminated from language to ensure “goodthink:”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed with exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out. … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”

Sadly, I’ve seen communication systems for Children programmed to offer a sort-of “newspeak.”  I’m sure it also happens with adults.  It’s convenient to never have anyone bring up any uncomfortable subjects, never have words that cause disruption.  But it’s not how typical children (or adults) communicate, and it’s not how people with communication disabilities should be forced to communicate.

Certainly different people need different vocabulary, but I very much support a vocabulary system that can include words that may not be the focus of instruction, and may even be “inappropriate.”  Newspeak is not an alternative to teaching proper language use!

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