Problems In Proper Expression
Some people are unable to effectively communicate. Something blocks them from
expressing themselves as they would like. * How do we identify this problem?
What is the solution?
Language is not only
verbal expression. It is also thinking and understanding. Understanding is
obtained through language. Language and understanding are the way man
communicates with the world. Through understanding, man assimilates what is
going on and what is being said in the world around him, and likewise, through
the ability to understand the world understands him.
Everybody has his
own language. It can be a language of letters, but it could just as well be a
language without letters. As long as it is a form of communication by means of
which one can understand another, you can call this a common language.
We observe little
children who although they don’t speak still understand us, and we them. How is
this possible? This is because there is mutual understanding, the basis for
Daily speech is the
result of cause and effect. We use it to express what we understand. Some people
are unable to say what they want. They think, and then want to express their
thoughts aloud, but don’t manage to express themselves properly. This is because
the passage from that which was absorbed to that which is expressed is blocked,
preventing them from expressing what they want to say.
We all know that the
Torah speaks about “four sons.” How can we know which category each son belongs
to? Is he wise, wicked, simple, or perhaps he does not know how to ask? We can
learn this from the son’s question. When the question is clever, it tells us the
son asking it is wise. The simple son, on the other hand, doesn’t know how to
ask full, detailed questions. He speaks in generalities, saying, “What is this?”
The wicked son’s question is reminiscent of that of the wise son, as the
commentators note, for he is wise, but his wisdom is used in wicked ways. His
question is asked coldly and cynically, the trademarks of the wicked.
What do we mean when
we say the wise son’s question is wise? When the wise son asks, he knows
precisely what he wants to ask. His question is posed in a way that incorporates
all the details he wants to hear explained. He expresses himself in a way that
his question is fully understood. He doesn’t want to know what it says in the
Torah, because he knows that. Neither is he asking what the halacha is,
because he knows that, too. His question is deeper. He knows there are eidus,
chukim, and mishpatim, and he knows what they are and can define
them, and can even explain them. His question is, “What are the eidus and
chukim...that Hashem our G-d commanded you.” Being that it is Hashem our
G-d Who commanded, and I am also commanded, I want to understand why; to plumb
the depths of the issue I already know.
When someone asks
such a clever question, which is well-defined, detailed, and explained (and so
brief), we can only conclude that he is a wise son.
The simple son’s
question is simple, but we cannot yet conclude that he is not wise. Perhaps he
is potentially wise and all that he lacks is the knowledge of how to ask a
question, bringing his potential out. Perhaps if we taught him, he would also
know how to ask clever questions.
When the Torah tells
us about four sons, one of whom is simple, it’s not to tell us that his
condition is permanent and there’s nothing to be done for him, and so he will
remain simple forever. The Torah wants us to know how to help him improve, how
to teach him how to express himself so that the real person can be recognized by
the question he asks, so that his question is also clever. He needs to learn
that it’s not just, “what’s this?” but that there are eidus, chukim, and
mishpatim, and that matters are more complicated.
introduction was important, because people make a fundamental error. When a
child expresses himself as a simple son, he is immediately identified as a
simple son, and he is treated as such. But this is wrong. Maybe he is actually
wise but only in the potential state.
Our job as teachers
and educators is to help the child actualize his potential. Maybe he is lacking
in his comprehension and he needs to be taught the skills of definition, to
introduce him to the process of reasoning, and then he can attain, to whatever
extent possible, the ability to ask questions like the wise son.
It’s also possible
that he is simple, but if we teach him to ask clever questions, he can begin to
be wise. By teaching him these important skills: comprehension, categorization,
reasoning, and their clear expression, we can help him begin to think
differently and on a much higher level.
It is important to
know that speech is, after all, fluency with words. Language takes words and
organizes them, compiling them in a logical manner to convey meaning.
Take the following
sentence for example: When we say “the store is closed at two,” we mean that
there is no reason to come to the store at two o’clock because whoever comes at
that time will find the store closed. There’s no need to add, “If you want to
come shopping at the store at two, forget about it. It’s a waste of your time
because the store will be closed.” It’s enough to say the store is closed.
There was a bank on
the verge of collapse. When word got around about its imminent closure,
customers descended upon the bank in order to retrieve whatever money they could
withdraw. The crowds pressured the manager, who ordered that the doors of the
bank be closed. Disappointed people banged on the door and a bank official
informed them firmly that the bank was closed.
One of the people
who disagreed with this seemingly arbitrary decision said, “What do you mean
‘closed’? The bank is supposed to be open now!” And he continued stubbornly
banging on the door. The people around him looked at him in surprise. Didn’t he
understand what was meant by the words, ‘the bank is closed’? The bank had
financial problems, the owners wanted to avoid the creditors and so they locked
the doors! The man who didn’t get the point wondered why the bank was closed.
The message is that
which was left unsaid, that which an intelligent person can infer.
There are people,
however, who don’t “get it.” They have a problem with language. Put more
precisely, they have a hard time drawing inference. They hear the words, the
sentences, but the meaning they attribute to them is different than the message
the speaker intends to convey. This is a problem in interpreting messages.
This problem doesn’t
stem from a general lack in comprehension. Its source is in the fact that every
person looks at things differently and sees things in a different light. So the
listener can interpret things differently than the speaker intended.
You see this with
children when the teacher reads a line in a Mishna: If he asks his
students to explain it, he will hear different explanations. Some children will
understand it properly, while others will misunderstand. The teacher might be
surprised and wonder how some children derived the right explanation while
others, though they explain the line eagerly and confidently, are wrong. The
reason for this is each child has his own way of understanding things.
Here’s an example:
When you learn the Gemara at the beginning of HaMafkid, “One who deposits
an animal or tools with his friend, and they are stolen or lost, if he paid but
did not want to swear, for they (the chachomim) said a shomer chinam
(an unpaid watchman) swears and is free to go” - how do you explain this
The Gemara speaks in
a roundabout way. “He paid and doesn’t want to swear - for they said a shomer
chinam swears and is free to go.” The sentence means to say that since the
unpaid watchman swears and is free to go, this watchman can also swear and is
free to go. However, this watchman doesn’t want to swear, and prefers to pay.
A child will
generally find this hard to follow, because he usually understands that which is
taught to him and explained clearly. He can understand Rashi’s comment on a
pasuk, and can explain it exactly the way his teacher explained it, with all
the dialectics, but to understand the hidden message himself, that which is
between the lines, is something he still cannot do.
Here is where the
teacher - or generally speaking, the adult - makes a mistake. He turns to the
child, speaks to him, and thinks it only natural that the child understand what
he means, since he, the adult, understands. He is surprised, and sometimes
frustrated or angry, when the child doesn’t meet his expectations, since the
child still has a problem understanding messages.
In order to make it
easier for a child to properly understand, the teacher has to prepare his
explanation in such a way that whatever he wants the child to know and
understand, he states clearly.
For example, when
the teacher wants to say that if a person finds something without an identifying
sign, it belongs to him since the original owner despaired of its ever being
returned to him, how can he say this clearly?
He can relate a
little story like this: Reuven lost something. Shimon found it but before
deciding to keep it, he examined it and saw no identifying feature. What should
he do? The Tanna says he may keep it since the original owner gave up
A child would have
no difficulty understanding this since the halacha is stated clearly. The
same halacha can be presented in a way that confuses the child: Somebody
finds an object without an identifying feature. Since it has no siman,
the Gemara says the original owner gave up, which is why the halacha
states that it belongs to him.
was not presented in an orderly way and the child, who needs to hear things
clearly stated, is confused and is liable to lose his way and find it difficult
The opposite also
happens when the teacher asks the child to answer a question and the child
begins and says a few words and gets confused. Not because he doesn’t know the
answer; he knows it but he finds it hard to organize the words in a way that
enables him to express in clear sentences that which he knows and understands.
He has a problem organizing his words and sentences.
It can be a general
difficulty, not one necessarily focused on language. It is very likely that this
child has problems with organization. He is not focused, he is not organized, he
doesn’t put his things in their place and then he doesn’t find what he needs,
which leads to confusion and once again, to lack of focus, organization, and
disorder. This child’s manner of speech is also confused.
In order to make it
easier on the child, we first need to deal with his inner disorder and
confusion. We have to instill in him the awareness of the importance of
organization. It is only after he becomes aware of this that we can slowly
direct him so that he can properly express himself verbally, in orderly
sentences. Clear and orderly expression are prerequisites to effective
Now we come to a
very critical point in teaching children, one which people generally tend to err
in. When a teacher asks a question, he listens to what the child says. The
teacher is obviously interested in hearing the child repeat the material he was
taught. This is a mistake. The teacher should focus his listening - not on what
the child says, but on how he says it, on what he says. A good
teacher has to see what’s going on while he gives his lesson. He needs to
notice, based on the child’s expression and behavior, whether he is with the
teacher, if he’s following and understanding what’s being taught.
A great educator
once said that when he tests children, his goal is not to see how much they
know. When a child “knows his stuff,” he sees that as soon as a child opens his
mouth. His goal is to see how the child answers the question: is it orderly and
organized? is there a logical flow and at the same time, is it to the point?
This is because the
child’s way of expressing himself is no less important than his comprehension.
We can’t remain satisfied knowing that the child knows the material (even if he
can’t express it properly) and say the rest isn’t important. Just as we teach a
child to know, we must teach him to express himself. This is not just with
Gemara, but every area. Because when a particular problem needs to be dealt
with, you can’t deal with just one area affected by the problem. The problem
needs to be dealt with comprehensively and needs to be corrected in all its
manifestations. You need to talk with the child’s parents and guide them as to
how to direct their child, and help him handle the issue in all forms connected
to speech. This is the only way he’ll slowly succeed in overcoming the
Parents need to pay
attention to the way their child expresses himself, noticing whether his
sentences are confused, and not properly organized. Overlooking this is just
laziness on the parents’ part and their running away from the problem. Even if a
parent understands what the child means to say or ask despite his confusing way
of expressing himself, he may not ignore the problem and answer the child as
though the thought was expressed properly. Every so often the parent must take
the time to say, “I heard you say an interesting point, but I didn’t quite get
it. Can you tell it to me in a way that I can understand it 100%?”
Naturally this ought
to be done gently and carefully so as not to insult the child.
Speech has a great
influence on understanding and intellect. We learn this from the pasuk,
“And Adam was l’nefesh chaya,” which Targum translates as, “l’ruach
memala” (one who speaks), because speech expresses man’s spirit. This means
there is a direct link between speech and intellect. The more clearly we speak,
the better the child’s comprehension.
difficulty, which adults have too, especially older people, is the problem in
finding the right word and drawing it out of one’s memory. We’ve all experienced
something like this: We call for a cab and as soon as we hear a voice on the
other end we forget our address! Don’t we know our address? Of course we do, but
for some reason, at that moment, the name of the street slips our mind. Then we
wonder how such a simple thing could be forgotten. The explanation is: it’s not
forgetting. It was just hard to draw out the words from our memory. It happens
when a person is under pressure and nervous and not concentrating.
As far as children
go, we sometimes see that although they are not tense and they seem utterly
relaxed, when asked a question they find it hard to find every third word. These
are children who can organize a sentence but they have difficulty selecting the
When the child is
asked why he paused, he generally answers, “because I wanted to think.” But if
he knows and understands, why does he have to think? The reason is, he needs to
find the word that alludes him.
When we become aware
that the child actually knows and understands, and his only difficulty is in
finding the words to express what he knows, our attitude towards him will be
altogether different, as will be the child’s view of himself.
When a teacher asks
a question in the middle of a class, some children know the answer and want to
respond, but suddenly the words allude them. The child’s classmates, and
sometimes the teacher too, think the sudden silence shows he doesn’t know the
answer or that the child realized that the answer he planned on saying isn’t the
right one. The other children laugh and make unflattering remarks. The teacher
puts a stern look on his face and the child who tried to answer the question is
mortified. His frustration is great because he really knew the answer but
suddenly, for no apparent reason, the words alluded him. When this problem is
not addressed, and this happens time and again, the child loses his
When a child has
difficulties expressing himself, the question is: does he have trouble finding
the right word or is his vocabulary poor?
It’s also important
to know why the word is not in the child’s vocabulary. Is it because it’s
complicated and the child finds it difficult to incorporate in his vocabulary,
or is he lacking the underlying concept and therefore doesn’t have the words to
For example: A
person who is blind from birth doesn’t know what colors are. We can teach him
the fact that there are colors - red, black, and white. He can repeat the words
although he doesn’t know what they represent. After we’ve taught him this, he
has acquired some more vocabulary words. If we hadn’t taught them to him, he
wouldn’t miss them at all, since he lacks the ability to understand colors.
A smart person who
can see, understands the concept of color. He internalizes the concept even
without words, but he still doesn’t have the word to describe each color. If
this is the case, when he wants to describe black, how will he do that? He can
say, “A color that isn’t red, isn’t green, some other color...” Since he doesn’t
have the word that describes the color precisely, he uses many other words in
the hopes that he can manage to express what he wants to say. Since this
individual wasn’t nurtured properly, his vocabulary is limited. If we teach him
the words he needs, he’ll do fine.
There are children
who need vocabulary enrichment. For example: Every child knows the year is
divided into seasons, but some children are only aware of summer and winter.
They don’t know about fall and spring. When they are made aware of these
concepts, they can be enriched with the missing words. When a child is asked in
the fall: What do you feel now? According to the weather, is it summer? The
child says No. So what season is it? we ask. Neither summer nor winter, he
responds. So what is it? What’s the name of the season?
If the child got the
idea, and is only missing the name of the season, we can tell him what it is.
However, if he’s missing the concept, which means that he considers fall part of
winter, just a little warmer, he’ll never use the proper word because he is
unaware of the concept altogether.
First we must
explain the concept. Children with a poor vocabulary might very well be missing
concepts. Concepts like over/under, right/left, before/after, tomorrow/the day
after tomorrow. When we teach them, they will say these words, but it doesn’t
mean they grasped their proper usage.
Some children, upon
rising in the morning, ask: What day is it today? Despite the fact that
yesterday and the day before we explained how to count the days, it has to be
explained anew, because they have no concept of time. The child can’t grasp that
a month has thirty days.
When the child
doesn’t have the concept, the word that expresses it doesn’t mean anything to
him. Being that this is the case, he has no use for the word and he hardly ever
uses it, even if he knows the word. Sometimes you find ten-year-olds who still
have difficulties with right and left. When you ask them, they try to guess: Is
it this hand? Or this one?
When a child’s
vocabulary is poor, it’s important to test his knowledge of concepts.
There might also be
a memory problem. The child knows the concepts but he quickly forgets. It’s
important to note that he doesn’t have trouble finding the right word. His
difficulty is in remembering the words themselves.
Sometimes the child
remembers things that happened long ago, but has a hard time remembering words.
This is because he has a selective memory, forgetting words or names, numbers or
When we know for
sure that a child’s problem is vocabulary, it’s very important to notice how the
child expresses himself. When he doesn’t use the right words, or doesn’t use all
the necessary words, skipping words here or there, knowing that we’ll understand
him without them - we must correct him. It has to be done with the child
cooperatively. This is how we’ll direct him in a way in which he can correct
himself and say the missing words.
If it turns out that
he is indeed lacking, we have to broaden and enrich him so that he can express
Sometimes, when we
see a child with a certain problem, we simply acknowledge and accept his
disadvantage, and don’t demand that he perform like the others since, nebach,
he just can’t. This approach is completely unacceptable. The child has to be
taught how to deal with his problem so that he can attain the greatest possible
heights. If we pity him and just let him get away with it, we cause him
When a child cannot
walk, do we give up? Of course not! We take him to the best doctors, and do
physical therapy regularly. This same is true when a person loses movement in
his arm. He’s given exercises to do, he moves his fingers and hand, because this
is the only way he’ll regain what he lost.
If we give up on the
hand and allow it to remain without movement, it can shrivel up. We don’t easily
give up on a limb. We don’t allow it not to fulfill its function without a
Speech can be
trained. Through exercises the situation can be improved until we see a
noticeable improvement, and even complete recovery.
difficulties’ is an all inclusive concept. Before we get to work, we have to be
aware of the different categories, identify the source of the problem, and then
help the child with his particular difficulty, whether it’s retrieving words, a
poor vocabulary, or disorganization. We focus on each area separately and give
it our fullest attention.