Spontaneous Second Language Interactions: What Can We Learn for AAC Intervention?

In a recent visit to South Africa I had the privilege to be a fly on the wall in observing an interaction between two young people: a little girl who is 9 years old (Afrikaans-speaking, but also fluent in English) and a young adult in her early 30s (English-speaking, but also competent in Afrikaans, although she hasn’t spoken it for some time). These two cousins had not seen each other in a couple of years and were very happy to be reacquainted. A recording was made of their interaction (embedded below).


The cousins are having early morning coffee together in bed.

Before the recording started, the little girl asked her cousin what language they should use. To this the young adult replied, “Whatever language you would like to use.” The little girl chose Afrikaans. I could see the hesitancy on the young adult’s face, as she has been out of the country and hence has not used Afrikaans for a while, but she agreed to talk in Afrikaans.

In the video, the little girl describes her family’s drive by car from Durban to see the cousin and other family in Johannesburg. According to her, their car was the only car on the road except for South African taxis (mini-buses whose drivers are notorious for their fast and reckless driving). To assist non-Afrikaans-speakers with the viewing, I have translated here the videotaped interaction.


G = girl
A = adult

G: We were in the only normal car (on the road), all the other cars were taxis. So we got stuck behind the red taxi that didn’t want to go. All the taxis stormed past and we could not get into (the lane), as we were scared the cars wouldn’t stop.

A: Agh, shame (South African expression for: “I am so sorry”), man. That was a bit…sounds a bit anxious to me.

G: Yes, for a couple of moments, I closed my eyes.

A: Agh, shame  …but I am glad you arrived here.

I was fascinated by the little girl, who spontaneously started the conversation by wanting to know which language they should use in their interaction. As she is in a multilingual school and home environment, she is clearly aware of language preferences. After the decision was taken to speak Afrikaans, she took no time to delve into the conversation. The ease with which she was able to engage in the interaction and the enjoyment in relating the narrative was evident. The cousin was clearly interested, but came across as much less confident in this interaction. Her participation was reduced to some expression of empathy (“Agh, shame”) and a comment (that the experience must have been quite anxiety-provoking).

The young adult was not only less verbally expressive, but also showed some awkwardness in expressing herself in Afrikaans. The little girl can thus be seen as the more competent communicator in the situation. From a competency perspective, it is just so easy to underestimate the ability of second-language-speakers based on their verbal expression! It should be noted that the older cousin is a PhD student!

How Is This Relevant to People Who Use AAC?

Two pertinent observations can be made here:

  1. Both these communication partners were able to speak the same language, although the little girl was clearly more proficient in Afrikaans. The asymmetry between these two communication partners is similar to experiences of students who are English-second-language learners in the school. This asymmetry, however, is worse for those who use AAC systems, in that…
    1. it takes longer to formulate and express a message using AAC; and
    2. very often the AAC system is not able to easily transition between different languages, which means the individual has no choice as to which language s/he can use.

    Bottom line: The inability to express oneself verbally makes it so easy for others to perceive one as less competent.

  2. Although the decision to choose which language to use could seem trivial to those of us who can speak and are bilingual, the impact for the non-speaking individual is huge. It basically means that apart from having to master the use of an AAC system, the student also often needs to learn to use the system in a second language (e.g., English) that is less familiar to them. In this context, it might be understandable if a student withdraws from communicating with others in the classroom.

The Takeaway

AAC intervention is first and foremost about the ability to express oneself in the language of one’s choice—that is, the language that comes more naturally to the individual. However, working within an English school context makes it easy to lose sight of this fact. Giving a student who uses AAC a choice of which language to use in interactions is important—not only to promote social inclusion, but also for promoting emotional well-being and self-confidence.

The purpose of this article is not to argue that schools should not invest time in teaching English as a second language to assist students in their academic progress. Rather, the purpose is to focus our attention on the importance of also promoting competency in the language of choice for social and emotional development in interaction with peers and family. Observing natural interactions of typically developing children and adults remains a vital source of inspiration for all who work to improve communication for those with significant communication difficulties.

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