Question: My son is dating a woman from another country. She has three children – two boys and a 4-year-old girl. I’ve noticed that the little girl doesn’t talk much and very rarely makes eye contact when I try to talk to her. A friend of mine has a son on the autism spectrum who acts the same way. Should we be concerned, or could this just be a personality thing?
Answer: With the increasing awareness of spectrum disorders, there is also more concern with “normal” social or pragmatic skills. Pragmatics describes each society’s social rules in communication and cover things like taking turns in conversation, eye contact, head movements and personal space. Speech therapists often use these abstract rules when evaluating children for traumatic brain injuries, spectrum disorders and other disabilities.
While it’s good to be concerned, this little girl’s behavior may be more of a cultural difference as opposed to a communication disorder. Each culture has its own set of social rules and expectations. In addition, certain cultures often have different rules for men and women. As teachers and speech therapists, we have an obligation to learn about the difficult cultures our students come from. Cultural awareness needs to be an important part of the evaluation progress. Without this important piece, children will continue to be labeled with a language disorder instead of a language difference.
I once worked with a 4-year-old girl from a Hispanic family who was referred to me for pragmatic language difficulties. She reportedly had difficulty with eye contact and appeared to have little interest in conversation. Indeed, initially, as I attempted to engage her, she neither looked at me or attempted to interact with me in any way. I decided to bring out a dollhouse equipped with the family of dolls and all the furniture. We played alongside each other, and gradually she demonstrated age-appropriate pretend play. She also demonstrated age-appropriate verbal language as she picked up the daddy doll and said as she looked at me, “Papa esta comiendo una manzana” ( daddy is eating an apple). She did not have a pragmatic-language disorder but rather a cultural difference.
The following are some common cultural pragmatic differences.
1. The right amount of eye contact often differs between cultures.
In the United States, and most western countries, strong steady eye contact is considered important. Looking at the speaker when speaking or being spoken to is considered polite and honest. In conversation, most Americans and Europeans tend to give more eye contact when listening and less when speaking. This is often the reverse in other cultures. Eye contact in Latin American, Asian and African countries can be seen as a challenge to authority, especially in women. It is generally considered disrespectful, especially for young children, to look at the speaker directly.
2. Head movements mean different things in different cultures.
Western cultures generally shake their head to mean no and use a nod of the head to indicate yes. We also tend to continue a slight head nod when listening, as affirmation to the speaker. Indian speakers, however, have many head shakes denoting different meanings. If an Indian shakes his head from side to side while listening he’s indicating yes. A head wobble or a nod generally means maybe. Doing a yes or nod head shake vigorously means a decision has been reached. Shaking a head while speaking shows respect and interest to the other person.
3. High context versus low context communication
Different cultures have different expectations in conversation. These differing styles are described as “low” or “high” context. In a low context culture, emphasis is placed on the individual and the precise details of the communication. Each word is considered, and we expect the same from our communication partners. Silence in conversation is uncomfortable. The United states is considered low context. Higher context cultures rely less on verbal communication. Fewer words are spoken and more reliance is placed on nonverbal communications. Silence is valued as an important part of the conversation. Native American, African American, Asian and Latino cultures are considered high context.
Ultimately, how does the young child interact with her family, particularly her brothers. Does her mother have concerns about her development? Is she attending a preschool? if so, does the teacher have any concerns? If there are no general concerns, chances are there is no disability simply a difference.
Please send in any speech and language questions and concerns you have to British Nanny c/o www.parentpages.com or to my website, Vocallyclear.com. Some will be used in a future column, others will be answered personally.