As listeners, we go through are several steps to understanding what someone says. First, we must be able to perceive the message. In order to perceive, we use our senses. Sensory deficits, such as vision loss or hearing impairment can impact understanding.
Provided we perceive the message, we need to be able to interpret it. We break down its structure. We analyze what this particular combination of words mean. We figure out the function of the message. For example, is it a greeting, a comment, or a question? Word endings may tell us whether the action takes place now, or in the past. A simple “s” tells us about one or more than one.
As our brain process these structural clues, we get the surface meaning. But there is more beyond the actual meaning of the language. There may also be a more nuanced, social meaning behind what someone says. Sarcasm, for example, is a mismatch of the words and attitude. We might convey attitude through body language, or tone of voice.
Every person does this – whether they speak or not. Hearing, listening, and understanding happen with or without speech abilities. It is important to remember that not being able to speak does NOT mean that someone doesn’t understand. People who don’t speak often understand more than we think.
A person’s reaction allows us to deduce their ability to understand. We can note how the person follows directions. Can they follow directions that are not part of their regular, practiced routines? We can watch for other indicators – eye gaze, posture, or even breathing. The person may be able to blink their eyes to indicate yes and no.
People generally understand a lot more than they can say. We don’t know how much someone understands if they can’t express. We have to give them the tools to speak. Giving a person a method to communicate has the potential to help further grow receptive skills. The acts of expressing and understanding are interconnected.