3 Methods of Representing Language

3 Methods of Representing Language

1) alphabet-based methods 2) single meaning pictures 3) semantic compaction

  • All AAC systems use one or a combination of these methods.
  • ALPHABET-BASED METHODS are often subdivided to include spelling, word prediction, and orthographic word selection (use of whole printed words). Are self-evident for LITERATE readers.
  • Many different SINGLE MEANING PICTURE systems are available.
  • SEMANTIC COMPACTION is the use of multi-meaning icons in sequences to represent language.

  • Alphabet-Based Methods are of little help for many non-verbal people. Limited physical access can slow word generation considerably, even with word prediction. In fact, static word prediction is more useful to people with limited dexterity as it allows them to make predictive selections with certainty. Making choices from an array of possible words or having to type in more letters to bring up further possibilities is time consuming, in a major way, for most AAC users.
  • Intellectual disability is another factor that negates the practical use of spelling as a language representation method. Without emergent literacy, pictorial symbols remain the only viable option. Such disability also compromises Single Meaning Picture systems reliant on users being able to interpret symbol labels, category names & on-screen instructions.
  • Matching single symbols to pre-programmed phrases & sentences although gratifying initially, can for the majority of AAC-dependent, non-verbal people lead to poor language development. Users are robbed of spontaneity, instead having to pump-out engineered responses. Language is composed of individual words & is based upon mastery of core, or high-frequency, words. Navigation to, & selection of stored sentences is problematic for anyone once the pre-programmed messages reach into their hundreds, while for the illiterate the defining labels are useless.
  • Single Meaning Picture systems also tend to deny device users the chance to construct novel phrases & sentences. A proven element of natural speech is that everyone is extremely particular about how they put their words together, the order & the emphasis. Although we all say many similar things every day, we are adamant about how we phrase our thoughts in the moment.
  • There are many structural issues that Single Meaning Pictures, as a methodology of language representation, inevitably create for the prospective AAC user. These result in considerable cognitive strain being faced by non-verbal people struggling to understand language.
    • Core Vocabulary is abstract & can only be represented arbitrarily by a picture
    • Fringe Vocabulary (nouns) can be picture producers, but also has multi-meanings
    • Seeking enough Core Vocabulary to form a phrase or sentence causes the device user to embark upon a hunt for the right word across a massive 3D web of pages containing core words in different spatial locations on different pages.
  • These difficulties are neatly avoided by the unique symbolic representation method known as Minspeak. The approach only generates words once symbols are placed in a predictable sequence of selection. Thousands of core words can be thus produced from a finite set of symbols located on one Home Page. The symbols themselves do not change when selected, nor does their static, spatial positioning.
  • Words are categorised according to the parts of speech that allow for regular, intuitive patterns of selection to be memorised through repetitive motor-planning principles.
  • Minspeak is therefore a method of giving access to language by using symbols in a clear-cut, learnable way. One advantage of the system is that far fewer key presses are required to generate each word than all other AAC approaches, including Spelling-based ones & any of the multitude of Single Meaning Picture products available.
  • Learn more about Minspeak & all its extra advantages over conventional AAC methods by following the link below:

    Unity Language System

Alphabet systems, semantic compaction and single meaning picture systems are three different ways language can be represented in AAC systems to help people communicate when they have difficulty speaking.


Alphabet Systems

Alphabet systems use letters of the alphabet to represent words. This is useful for people who can spell or type. By selecting and arranging letters, individuals can construct words, phrases, and sentences. While alphabet systems allow for any word to be communicated, it can be time-consuming to type out longer words compared to other methods.

Semantic Compaction

This method uses multi meaning symbols in different combinations to represent different words. The goal is to help individuals say anything they want, and to say it quickly, while still using only a very small number of symbols. 
For example, one symbol might represent a concept such as “doing words” or “describing words” like below:

Doing words

Describing words

When a symbol such as an “apple” or a “drink” is combined with one of these two symbols different meanings are made. See below examples:

Semantic compaction systems ensure that there is only one way to say one word. This is the same as verbal speech. By making every word quick to get to with only one way of getting to it, individuals can quickly become automatic in how they communicate. This automaticity is essential for helping people reach their fullest, communicative potential.  

Single Meaning Picture Systems

Unlike semantic compaction, single meaning picture systems use individual symbols for each word. Each symbol represents only one specific thing. This means there are many symbols to navigate through, which can be challenging.
Finding specific words for the first time may be quicker if you use your cognitive skills like categorisation and literacy, but communicating sentences or ideas can still take much longer compared to semantic compaction systems.

The choice between these systems depends on a person's communication needs, cognitive and physical abilities, and individual preferences. It's important to assess and consider what works best for each individual.


For a deeper dive into language representation, you can listen to Bruce Baker, Founder of PRC-Saltillo, explain it during an AAC training day back in 2005! These principles remain unchanged to this day. 

Video - Bruce Baker on Language Representation

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