All the fun’s in how you say a thing.” - Robert Frost
I love interesting words and figurative speech. Nothing says “don’t even try delegating that to me” better than telling someone you’re “busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.” Conjures an image, doesn’t it? To their distress, I always try to use big words when small ones would do with my oldest son, who is deaf, and his hearing siblings. Often at my peril, I write the same way professionally, however, there is a method to my madness. Hear me out.
The rule of thumb, (FYI: an idiom that goes back to the Middle Ages referring to the allowable width of a stick that a man could use to beat his wife, i.e., no bigger than his thumb) is that a newspaper like The H&V Communicator is not the place for unnecessarily complicated language. This comes from the journalistic school of thought that newsprint should be written to the level of a sixth grade reader. Along this same line of thinking, I’ve been advised more than once to keep it simple and literal when communicating with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Well, I don’t cotton to that, (an idiom that comes from African American slaves who were choosy about which songs they’d sing while working in the fields, i.e., “I don’t pick cotton to that”). In a perfect world, we are all on the same page when it comes to recognizing that less is more does not apply to vocabulary and linguistic development.
Be A Thesaurus, Not a Dictionary
Certainly, the notion of communicating in an easy, understandable manner has its place, but in my opinion, we must never assume deaf or hard of hearing children can’t handle figurative, sophisticated language. If we never stretch their rhetoric, we are starving our children and students of what constitutes a major feature of language fluency and that’s usage.
We use and adapt language flexibly, creatively, regionally, and culturally. How we use it conveys our values, our history, our humor, and so much more. Words and phrases have more than literal meaning, but if we don’t model their extended applications, it’s not hard to grasp that our kids will be limited indeed with their possible interpretations of meaning—both receptively and expressively. Christine Yoshinaga-Itano, PhD., of the University of Colorado, points out that during the critical language development window, a young child who is deaf or hard of hearing is better served by a thesaurus-style approach over the more one-dimensional dictionary method. In other words, we need to convey early and often how many ways we can communicate something—whether signed or spoken. Of course, all of this requires age-appropriate expectations. But you can start small, “Do you want some “moo juice” in your bottle?” then grow,”Do you have to cling like a barnacle every time I drop you at school?” Before you know it, you’ve got a teenager on your hands and will be asking, “Will you be in by midnight, or will you be needing the police escort I have on hold since last weekend’s curfew violation?”
“Words are the skin of living thought.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes
You only get so far with mastery of English grammar and syntax. Very important, yes, but rules alone don’t always explain how we use language and convey its intention. Problem is the literal meaning isn’t always what we mean. The teacher who keeps reminding her students in an urgent tone that “It’s 11:45—pay attention, 11:45!!” is really warning kids to “finish up, we go to lunch a noon!” If our kids aren’t picking up on nuances like this, they often seem socially out of step with the rest of the class. Their misunderstanding of meaning is sometimes misinterpreted as a behavior problem. And that can lead an IEP discussion away from the real issue (language and literacy) towards a BIP (behavioral intervention plan). Not helpful.
To make this all the more challenging, by their very nature the evolving many rules of usage aren’t written down; they are, for all practical purposes, modeled. As such, they’re very likely to be missed if you cannot overhear them in use because you’re deaf or hard of hearing. That communication has subtext or metaphorical meaning should be proactively taught by parents and teachers alike. The real richness of our expression—whether spoken, signed or written—is conveyed with idioms and colloquialisms that give the message a personality…an emphasis…a double meaning. We should never miss a chance to pop an old or new saying into a conversation. It’s not that hard; anyone who’s got sense enough to pound sand down a rat hole can do it, (idiom courtesy of my college roommate, Tana, from Iowa).
“A word after a word after a word is power.” -- Margaret Atwood
We were so lucky. We had a teacher who got this. Mrs. Mathers announced at the beginning of fifth grade that each student would be graded on daily entries into his “Idiom Notebook.” My son, Dane, loved it! Around Halloween, I distinctly recall a conversation in which I was explaining my concerns over a certain Goth-looking neighbor kid who wanted to trick or treat with Dane. Nada, (as in “not-a chance”) I said. I could read that kid like a cheap comic book and he was trouble. My son protested, “Mom, you can’t judge a book by its cover!” It was true. I really didn’t know much about “Darth” Martin other than how he looked, so I conceded. Dane’s use of figurative language trumped my parental anxiety in large part because he’d used it so well and I wanted to reward that. After all, I was just making a mountain out of a mole hill, Dane concluded.
“The English language has far more lives than a cat; people have been murdering it for years.” -- Farmers Almanac
Don’t be afraid to try this…get jiggy with it! Raise the bar, push the envelope, put your best foot forward, think out of the box, press the pedal to the metal. Just do it. Say “indigo” after you’ve established bluish-black. Smile with your heart; laugh with your eyes. Start your own idiom notebook with your child or student. Broaden their horizons. I think you catch my drift.