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Valerie Dejean
writes on Vestibular Dysfunction



Before Words The Link between Praxis and Language Development

By Valerie Dejean, Director, Spectrum Tomates Center and Certified Tomatis Consultant


You walk into a friend's house just as she has put her baby down for a nap. You are about to speak when she places her finger in front of her lips and says, "Shhhh." You sit down on the couch and wait quietly. Scenarios like this happen every day: A mother gives her daughter the "thumbs up" from across the room after a success; a youngster opens and closes his fist to wave "bye-bye" to Daddy; construction workers in a noisy environment use gestures and pointing instead of words to communicate with each other.

Modern communication occurs not only through words but also through symbolic gestures. In fact, individuals can have an entire "conversation" and never utter a single word. Many experts feel that non-verbal symbolic communication is the foundation of language development. The pre-linguistic child communicates with her parents in a variety of ways in order to get what she wants. If she's hungry, she may point to the refrigerator and then to her mouth; if she's thirsty, she may point to her cup or make a sipping sound. Even when she first begins to use words, she typically uses a single word or sound to represent an entire action: "Hun-gee" for I'm hungry or "Tup" for I want a drink in my cup.

Lack of language development on the expected timetable can cause great concern to parents and caregivers. In these situations, parents want to look for signs of pre-verbal, intentional communication such as pointing. A child who is intentionally communicating through non-verbal gestures is likely getting ready to begin communicating verbally. A child who is not may need to focus on developing non-verbal communication skills before words can be expected. The use of symbolic communication: intentional gestures: in pre-verbal children resembles the evolution of language development.

Understanding what bridged the gap between the primate mind and the modern representational mind can help us understand where some of this fails to develop in the child with apraxia and language difficulties.

The Evolution of Language Merlin Donald's book "Origins of the Modern Mind" details the transition from primate cognition to human cognition without language, to the emergence of language and the human culture. Humans did not simply evolve a larger brain, an expanded memory, a vocabulary, or a special speech apparatus; rather, we evolved new systems to represent the world around us. In short, we developed symbols. No other animal has ever invented a symbolic system: gesture or word to represent something else in its natural environment. In fact, most animals cannot use symbols at all. How then did we come to represent the world around us in symbolic form?

First Came Episodic Thought The first type of cognition was episodic thought: or "memory of episodes." Episodic thought is memory that is present in mammals and a variety of other animals such as birds. In fact, it is highly evolved in apes. In this type of thought, an event (episode) is remembered in a literal, situation-specific manner. There is no reflection or representation of these thoughts. However, episodic thought is useful in many aspects of animal behavior. For example, a dog learns to sit on command through repeated trials: the word "sit" is said, the dog is placed in the seated position, and a treat is given. As the dog begins to develop a "memory" of this activity, he learns to assume the seated position when he hears the word "sit."

Through repeated trials, the dog commits this episode to memory and thus responds appropriately to the command. However, when the dog is not being asked to sit, he is not thinking about sitting, nor is he remembering what it was like to sit or wondering whether he'll be asked to sit again soon. Children with apraxia and language challenges seem to use their episodic memory well. In fact, this may explain why "discrete trial format" approach is a successful intervention with these children: it ostensibly helps the child develop a large repertoire of learned skills. However, this is also one of the drawbacks of exclusively using this system of learning.


Children need to learn to generalize beyond an episode so that they can adapt to new situations. Mimetic Culture For a period of about 1 millions years (according to Donald), humans transitioned from episodic thought to symbolic communication as we know it today. This intermediate stage is known as the Mimetic Culture: the time in which pre-verbal humans began to communicate with each other using "mime." Imagine spending the entire day using charades to communicate with others and you have a pretty good idea of what the mimetic culture may have been like. The objective of mime is to represent an event. The famous mime Marcel Marceau used his body movements and facial expressions to clearly represent words or activities, charming his audiences with his ability to convey whole stories without uttering a word.

According to Donald, "Mimetic thought is the ability to produce conscious, self-initiated representational acts that are intentional but not linguistic Mimesis is fundamentally different from imitation in that it involves the invention of intentional representations." It is this intentional communication that appears to be compromised in individuals with apraxia. These children don't tend to use the kind of gesturing that is present in mimetic thought structure. Mimesis involves a wide variety of actions and modalities: tones of voice, facial expressions, eye movements, manual signs and gestures, postural attitudes, patterned whole-body movements (Donald): and therefore requires multi-sensory processing (sensory integration) in order to be carried out successfully.

This may be another reason why some children do not engage in these pre-linguistic forms of communication: the effort required to coordinate that many body movements and sensory activities is more than they can put forth. For example, many non-verbal children do not clap their hands since hand clapping involves bilateral coordination (coordinating both sides of the brain and body simultaneously). Since they cannot do the gesture, they may also not fully understand the meaning of the gesture. From Episodic To Mimetic To Symbolic What led from mimetic thought to symbolic communication and language? According to Donald, mimetic thought evolved quickly into a system of standardized gestures. In other words, gestures became symbolic. When a person puts her finger to her lips, it means the same thing to you as it does to a Kalahari Bushman. However, it is not the same as acting out an event; it is instead a gesture that represents "Be quiet." Likewise, language is simply a group of symbols (letter/sounds) that represent a thought or item. It is completely symbolic. Some individuals do not have a developed capacity for symbolic thought and therefore are not yet ready to use words to represent thoughts, feelings, and actions. These individuals tend not to point or wave "bye-bye." In fact, many may learn to wave "bye-bye" through discrete trial, yet not fully grasp the meaning of what they are doing. It is here that we see the connection between mimetic thought and praxis: Praxis involves ideation, or the creation of an "idea" of what one wants to do, followed by the organization and execution of a plan in order to do it. Praxis allows for intentional, purposeful communication and interaction with our world.

Mimetic thought, the pre-verbal aspect of intentional communication, is in some ways the first step to intentional communication. It is critical, then, that parents and professionals not skip over the pre-linguistic aspects of communication when working on language development. Sometimes parents (and professionals) are so focused on waiting for that precious first word that they miss their child's pre-verbal communication. This pre-verbal communication is the foundation for verbal communication and deserves as much attention and enthusiasm. A non-verbal child who suddenly begins to point to his cup for a drink is "asking" for his cup. The words will likely follow in due time, but the pre-verbal asking is just as significant.

How The Spectrum  Center Can Help? Pre-verbal children who go through the Spectrum Center program, often develop intentional yet non-verbal communication prior to developing language. These children become better able to coordinate their bodies in order to communicate, and better able to process and use the sensory messages they receive. This pre-linguistic communication is the framework for the development of words and language. For many it is only a short time before words emerge which join, embellish and eventually replace the gestures. Once children experience the power of their words, they become highly motivated to communicate. Auditory stimulation combined with microphone work helps individuals to further hone their newfound voices, as Listening Trainers assist with vocabulary and sentence development. If you would like to know more about how the Spectrum  Center can aid in the development of language and communication, please contact us at 1-877-4AUTKID.

Copyright 2010 William J. Kennick