Quest for Language

Robert was not deaf.  I had a proof early on, even before formal testing was done at the New England Medical Center that he wasn’t.  I still remember  bare, little feet carrying Robert down the stairs of our old house in Keansburg, NJ. They moved as quickly as they could.  Not too fast, however,  as  Robert was not able yet to alternate his feet while walking down or up the stairs.  Robert hurried downstairs because he heard the song from Pinocchio.  He couldn’t resist the song. He had to be near the sound.  He would like to touch the sound.  Since he couldn’t he only touched TV.

Regrettably, the song was the only proof I had that Robert could hear.  He never reacted when I called his name or tried to tell him something. He didn’t talk either.

Robert was not deaf. But he had no language.  He didn’t understand what I was saying or what anybody else was. He deciphered  environmental sounds as signs that something happened.  That I passed by the door.  That  my car moved  by the house. He knew someone was at the door wanting to come in.  But he didn’t have language. After  six months of  working through discrete trials on differentiating aurally between two labels he couldn’t discriminate between any  pair of words.  I resigned myself to the fact that Robert will  never communicate and decided to teach him thinking without language.   I came to that radical idea because I had read Poincare’s book on mathematical discovery.  I read it many years before.  I barely remembered it.  I hardly could relate to its premise of thinking without words. But for Robert’s sake I entertained the possibility that it might happen.  Believing that you can think without words was the only workable choice. Accepting the opposite would lead me to giving up on teaching as useless.  If you cannot think without language there is no point of teaching anybody who does not possess some language. I wasn’t enthusiastic about starting that program.   I was not equipped with any theoretical knowledge.  I didn’t have any experience. Still I had t start somewhere.  I started with Robert’s toys, well educational toys or manipulatives.  I used some of them before with Robert while practicing  matching by shape or color.  I decided to concentrate on practicing basic elements of thinking, that, I hoped  I could practice  without help of words.  I concentrated on classifying, sequencing, and deciphering clues

I didn’t do much of the classifying of objects  myself as the school was working on it with Robert.If  I did some exercises it was to provide opportunity for additional practice and for generalization of a skill in another setting.  It had to  go smoothly since I don’t remember much about it.

For sequencing I used picture cards.  I started with cards representing stages of drawing a picture.   So on one picture there was just a square, on a second the square had a triangle on top, on the third and fourth windows and doors were added to complete the drawing of a house. After Robert learned to order those sets of pictures I turned to another set.   In this set the person was completing something – be it a snowman, a puzzle, a sandwich, or a picture.  We did this activities mostly in silence.  Robert didn’t talk, and I was told (I won’t mentioned even that person name) that talking would only confuse Robert. As you might guess, I regret that dearly.

I believed that if he had to live without language Robert should learn to flexibly read cues.  I didn’t have much to go on but a set of wooden pegs of different sizes and colors and a set of different plastic shapes in 10 different colors, and -of course – a set of attribute blocks.  I started to organize those pegs, shapes, and blocks  by size,  color, or shape etc, and wanted Robert to decode the pattern and complete it.

I didn’t work on color or shape matching skills he already had.  I worked (at least I believe I did) on Robert deciding what was the rule behind organizing. The rule I change randomly.

At that time I didn’t work with Robert on completing simple patters ABAB or ABBABB.  There was a reason for that, but since that reason is related to another aspect of teaching, I will address that later.

A few weeks after I started this program Robert for the first time differentiated between two verbally presented labels.  I doubt if my work with Robert – which was mostly mute- had any effect on Robert gaining access to the world of words.  Karen, a new teacher, was responsible for this breakthrough.

And yet I wonder…

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