Problems In Proper Expression
By Rabbi Yeshaya Weber 

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 language.


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.




This Pesachdige 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 Gemara?


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 hope.


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.


The halacha 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 to follow.


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 communication.


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 difficulty.


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.


Another serious 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 correct words.


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 self-confidence.


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 express it?


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 dates.


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 himself properly.


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 harm.


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 fight.


Speech can be trained. Through exercises the situation can be improved until we see a noticeable improvement, and even complete recovery.


‘Speech 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.


When a child expresses himself as a ‘simple son,’ he is immediately identified and treated as such. But this is wrong!




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.




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!


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