“Life is about using the whole box of crayons,”…trying something new…

A few weekends ago, I learned a new skill. I learned how to cue. Literacy is one of my top fundamental goals for my girls. In investigating other tools and methods to assist this, I came across “cued speech”. It is used quite widely in the USA and other developed settings, but is very new to South Africa. In fact, there is only one person in SA certified to do the training.

“What is cued speech?” Was a question that I posed to my mentor, our HI HOPES interventionist and ultimately the lady who does the training, whose details I was given on enquiry. I’m not sure that my explanation will do this very interesting system justice, but let me try. One of the facts that I was told that helped me appreciate the place for cued speech, was that about only 30% of the spoken word is accurately accessible through lip reading alone. An American scientist devised a system which uses eight hand shapes in four different position around or near the face, together with the mouth shapes of the spoken word, to make all the possible sounds of a spoken language look distinguishable from each other. These cues, together with the mouth shapes, then allow a 90-100% accuracy in the understanding of lip reading, an impressive difference, I thought. Cued speech, unlike Sign Language, is not a language in itself, but rather a tool that can be used to make a spoken language (English in our case) fully accessible to deaf or hard of hearing people. The more I learn about Sign Language, the more I appreciate that it is a complex language in its own right with its own unique linguistic rules. In embracing a bilingual, bicultural lifestyle for my 3 girls, SASL fulfils the one side of the balance beam, whilst cued speech may possibly serve as a helpful adjunct to the English side. This is an example that our teacher gave us. Stand in front of the mirror and mouth the words, “bat”, “pat” and “mat”. They look frightfully similar. We then learned to cue these three words and appreciated how a few added hand shapes, distinguishing the “b”, “p” and “m” sounds, can make these 3 words visually distinguishable. It kind of enables you to see the sound. Should this system work for us, it could possibly be a tool that could be used whilst reading or doing homework as a means or fine tuning their literacy.

After being briefed on how the system works and why it was worth at least investigating, a small team of us embarked on a weekend-long cued speech workshop. In about 14 hours, we had been taught the system through a series of simple games, stories and lots of practice. I found it really fun and so enjoyed challenging my brain to create a few new synapses whilst learning something very different. Our hosts were also extremely hospitable. I need to emphasize, that we may have learned the system, but were still very slow as fluency comes with practice. There were many moments of laughter as we’d find ourselves trying to cue one simple word and get stuck half way through whilst trying to recall the cue for a particular phoneme. Wwwweeeeeeeee eeeeendid uuuuuuuup speeeeeekkkkkkkki (what’s ‘ng’? oh yes) nnnng liiiiiiiiike thhhhhhhiiiiis. Our teacher was very patient with us as we practiced and forgot, and tried and got it wrong, then forgot again and then finally remembered.

Now the thing is, the girls won’t yet understand that we are using symbols to denote sounds. To them, a short cue, like in the word for “mamma”, will almost become like a new sign. Over time with more exposure and better fluency on our part, they’ll learn what the cues mean. Currently, we’re trying to find a way of ensuring that cueing becomes a part of their every day. We sign and speak and then explain the cue by showing them, “we SIGN ‘sorry’”(using the sign) then sign “we SAY ‘s-o-r-ee’” (and then cue the word). The thing is, that SASL is working for us as far as communicating goes, so introducing something new, when its use isn’t desperately needed at this stage, is quite difficult. In the afternoons, we read stories together. I’ve started introducing one story told using cued speech, and the others are signed (and mimed when my signing reaches its limits). Like signing, I can do preparation beforehand, practice the cues and think of how I would cue certain words. However, I’m still excruciatingly slow. We’ve also started cuing dinner vocabulary in the evenings when Graeme is also home to reinforce things. That’s working quite well.

Last week, during story time, I hadn’t thoroughly prepared the cued story, and tried to ‘wing’ it. Half way through the first paragraph, Hadassah put her hands on her hips, rolled her eyes and let out the biggest sigh! I was being too slow! After an apology to my wide-eyed trio, we continued the story in sign and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it in the end. Like anything on this journey, there’s going to be a lot of trial and error, practice and preparation, new things and mistakes. Some things will work, others won’t, but I reason, that all needs to be explored before knowing what will work best, the “sometimes you win and sometimes you learn” philosophy. I want things to be as fun as possible, so at the moment as far as the cueing goes, our cued stories are short and prepared in advance (but still currently rather slow).

Every now and then in the evenings, Graeme and I will cue to each other as practice. It’s always a laugh as we get stuck on a word and debate how we’d cue it, especially when it involves a word that we actually pronounce differently, which usually spirals into a discussion of who is actually pronouncing it correctly. Yesterday’s debate was over the word ‘usual’, which we eventually worked out after much deliberation. One afternoon recently, I thought I’d use a fun little tea party to practice a little cueing and expose the girls more to this system. We were having rooibos tea and sticky moist chocolate cake. Let me quickly add, that the cues involve touching your face (well at this stage anyway) mostly around your mouth and chin area. Let’s just say, that sticky chocolaty fingers and cueing practice, don’t make a fantastic combination. Our faces were covered in chocolate icing! A similar experience whilst enjoying some language involved with some crafting, left several glue finger prints around our mouths and chins….I’ve realized that I need to choose my activities wisely!

In a year or two, I’ll let you know if I’m any more fluent (it sure does feel as though it may take that long at least). Another example of being flexible, embracing the new and acknowledging that I sure don’t have all the answers. Another leg of this journey of trying to discover what works best for each of my individual girls, and what works best for our family as a whole. We were the first family to be trained to cue in South Africa. Let’s see how it works out…after all, “every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”

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