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Imitation or Initiation of Language

10-year old Dylan is lying on his back holding a new soccer ball. Roy, Dylan's Dad, is leaning over him signing ball as Dylan looks intently on. With a hand on each side of the ball, Dylan's hands perfectly match his father's hands.

I was talking with Dylan’s Intervener this week about the Communication Matrix and how initiation is such a key aspect of expressive communication. We’ve found it to be so easy to get in the trap of counting all of Dylan’s signed words as “language”—level 7 on the Matrix—but when we step back we find these signs are often imitations, even delayed imitations of something we had signed quite a bit earlier. Using the matrix helps us recognize when Dylan has moved from imitation to initiation with any of his forms of communication, although this post will primarily focus on the imitation or initiation of formal signs or words.

Now I’m not saying imitation is bad, it is an important, essential step in language development, and when Dylan finally got to the point where he was imitating anything and everything around him we (his school team) were ecstatic.

You see, for many years Dylan initiated topics by his actions, such as looking at light through a Dasani water bottle. To share in this topic with him, we would get a water bottle and move it and look through it the same way Dylan did. As time went on, we could make a change and he would follow us. But this new “monkey see, monkey do” stage of imitation was exciting because it showed the shift in his attention to what we were doing. My attention would be directed elsewhere, then I would notice Dylan looking at me and sitting in my exact position, including attempting to match my facial expression, and even my signs. As I moved, he moved. His gaze and imitation of me, invited me to “talk” with him through imitation games and copying fingerspelling and signs (American Sign Language.) The shared attention and reciprocity was, and is, fun and gives us the ability to share in “conversation” and relationship about topics that are present in the here and now.

Now Dylan can sign many words that he’s learned through imitation. The trick is in the evaluation of his expressive language as he uses those signs. Is he answering a question, such as “more” or “finished” or modeling my signing of those words? Is he imitating my signing of a word, such as planetarium, without understanding what a planetarium is, or does he connect the sign for planetarium with the concept of planetarium? This connection of sign and concept is what allows Dylan to initiate the use of signs to introduce a topic, and allows us to “talk” about things that are not in the here and now.

Take the phrase, “want different movie.” In attempting to help Dylan learn language, we paired a sign language model with his body movements that indicated he wanted help changing his VHS movies. Through imitation, he learned to sign, “want different movie,” a three-word phrase. Then came the day shortly after when we were in the community doing something that Dylan didn’t want to do, and he signed, “want-different-movie.” Apparently to Dylan the phrase meant, “I want something different” and had nothing to do with movies. Many, many years later, Dylan can now get our attention through vocalizing or hand motions, sign “want different movie” and point to the TV, clearly communicating, “I want a different movie.” (And yes, some days he even changes it himself, but that’s a different story.)

It’s important to remember that imitation is the model for formal language and provides a way to expand expressive communicative intent and interaction in the here and now, where as initiation allows the active use of communication in an ever changing, dynamic world. When the student is at the level of imitating signs, the adult is most often determining the topic of conversation. At the initiation level, the student has the ability to gain a communication partner’s attention and direct the partner’s attention to his or her own desired topics.

At 19, Dylan is just now beginning to initiate signs, such as ball to request a familiar item that wasn’t in it’s typical place, a person’s sign name as he gets ready to open the door to go see her, want finished as he was being offered an opportunity for more swinging. These initiations of signed words allow Dylan to let us know what or whom he is thinking about, so we can now talk about things that are not in the immediate here and now.

Through each stage we’ve moved from Dylan initiating at one level, and us modeling the next. Then he’d make the jump to initiating at that level and we would imitate the next. At each level relationship and reciprocity has been our focus, allowing us to enjoy each step along the way. And yes, when Dylan got up on his knees, reached his arm towards his Intervener, and signed ball, to ask her to go and get the ball from the other room, we celebrated the new level of control this new form of communication provides him, just as we’d celebrated each jump along the way.

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