For posts on bullying, visit The Learn to be Buddies Series Blog.
All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Do you understand what I'm saying?

Image from "Dave is Brave" . Copyright Amanda Gray and Daniel East.

Jenny has just arrived home from the gym feeling stiff and sore. Tom has just come inside as the coldness of the evening has made it too uncomfortable to work any longer in his garden.

Jenny rubs her lower back. “Uhhh! I feel old!”

“Brrr. I’m freezing, too! I’m going to have a shower.”

Jenny watches him go with a perplexed look on her face. “What?”

Image from


Even if we hear what a person is saying, and are paying attention, sometimes we don’t correctly interpret what they are saying.

To interpret or work out what a person is saying you have to be able to make sense of the sounds you hear. You need to change the isolated sounds into words, then put those words together based on their sequence and how they are said to get the full meaning of what you have been told (Anderson, 2000).

Minor misunderstandings like that between Jenny and Tom can occur because of trouble hearing. But they also often occur because we all bring our own ideas or context to communication.

Jenny’s context was that she was sore and tired. Tom’s was that he was cold. So he interpreted the word “old” to mean “cold”.

What makes it hard to interpret sounds?

The size of your vocabulary
You need to share the same vocabulary with the person to whom you are talking (Anderson, 2001). Children can have a smaller vocabulary for a wide range of reasons. Children with developmental delays such as that associated with Down Syndrome may take longer to learn words in a way that means they can “retrieve” them easily. This means that they may have a smaller vocabulary (Buckley, 1993; Chapman, 2006).

We pick up most of our vocabulary through experiences with language and conversations (Cross, 2001). Children who have difficulties hearing will have smaller vocabularies due to limitations placed on their language experiences. Children for whom English is their second language will also have a smaller vocabulary.

Some conditions like dyslexia can influence how we process sounds (Stein, 2001). So while children with these conditions may be able to hear the sounds, it might take them longer to work out what these mean. These children may also have a smaller vocabulary, or mix up sounds more often. They may also struggle to hear changes in tone of voice, which will be discussed below.

Children who have Autism Spectrum Disorders may also have a smaller vocabulary. This is mainly due their limitations in social and emotional reciprocity, or empathy (Scott, Clark, Brady, 2000). This means that the motivation for their communication will come from their own interests, not based on an understanding of how communication influences their relationships with others (Autism Association of South Australia, 2009).

For example, a child with Aspergers may have a special interest in Maths and logical problems. This child may then have a big vocabulary relating to this subject. But in the context of other subjects, including language related to everyday tasks and social interactions, their vocabulary might be quite small.

These difficulties can also lead to problems with the other things you need to know in order to correctly interpret what people are saying (discussed below).

Your knowledge of the patterns of language
To understand what people are saying you need to have a good knowledge of how words fit together in a sentence. You also need to know how tone of voice can change what they mean. As discussed in a previous post , this can be difficult if you have trouble paying attention to and interpreting others’ facial expressions and body language.

Your knowledge of the subject being discussed
As mentioned previously, knowing the context of a discussion is important in helping us interpret what is being said (Anderson, 2001). It helps us put the sounds together and chose the right words to fit the context. It also speeds up the process of changing the sounds into meaningful sentences.

So if you have a child who is tired, or bored, or struggling to pay attention they are more likely to misinterpret what you are telling them to do.

The process of interpreting sounds and words relies on our skills in remembering and retrieving information we have learnt (Hick, Botting & Conti-Ramsden, 2005). I will talk more about memory in the next post.


Anderson, C. (2001). Pragmatic Communication Difficulties. In R. MacKay and C. Anderson (Eds), Teaching Children with Pragmatic Difficulties of Communication, p24-38. David Fulton Publishers: Hampshire.

Autism Association of South Australia. (2009). What is Autism? Retrieved 16th May, 2009 from:

Buckley SJ. (1993) Language development in children with Down syndrome - Reasons for optimism. Down Syndrome Research and Practice,1(1), p3-9. Retrieved from

Chapman RS. (2006). Language learning in Down syndrome: The speech and language profile compared to adolescents with cognitive impairment of unknown origin. Down Syndrome Research and Practice, 10(2), p61-66. Retrieved from

Cross, L. (2001). Early Communication Development. In M.S. Lue (Ed.) A Survey of Communication Disorders for the Classroom Teacher, p35-54. Allyn and Bacon: Boston.

Hick, R.F, Botting, N., and Conti-Ramsden, G. (2005) Short-term memory and vocabulary development in children with Down syndrome and children with specific language impairment. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 47, p532–538. Retrieved

Scott, J., Clark, C., and Brady, M. (2000). Students with Autism: Characteristics and Instruction Programming. Singular Publishing Group: San Diego.

Stein, J. (2001). The Neurobiology of Reading Difficulties. In M. Wolf (Ed) Dyslexia, Fluency and the Brain, p 3-22. York Press: USA.


About This Blog

You are welcome to browse as you like... but please remember that everything here is copyrighted. To receive printable copies of articles that you can hand out to others, subscribe to the Learn to be Buddies newsletter at

Copyright Amanda Gray 2009-11

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP