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Minspeak Gives People a New Voice

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By Hank Walshak Have you ever talked with a person who has had a stroke? He or she may have had difficulty saying a single word. Have you ever talked with a child who has difficulty speaking? More than a million Americans, young and old, have significant communication disabilities. Many of these individuals are prime candidates for a speech-generating device using the Minspeak method.

Two examples of Minspeak systems are the software suites, UNITY® and UNIDAD® (bilingual English/Spanish) produced by Semantic Compaction Systems, Inc. (SCS) in Pittsburgh.  SCS licenses its intellectual property to the Prentke Romich Company, an engineering and educational company based in Wooster, Ohio.

The Minspeak language representation system can meet the complex communication needs of children and adults who experience a variety of speaking disabilities and challenges – cognitive, physical and emotional.

The small-icon set and its grammatical, consistent patterns that code vocabulary substantially reduce learning demands for people who face language and cognitive issues.

Bruce Baker, A.M., L.H.D., CEO and President of SCS and his language team focus on educating professionals and families in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, Denmark and Australia.  Their R&D teams have completed Mandarin, Japanese and French versions. The company has also designed interfaces that include second-language learning (UNIDAD® bilingual teaching), games and productivity applications.


The Minspeak system uses multiple-meaning pictures, or icons, in short sequences to enable a person to say thousands of words in just one, two or three key selections.  The icons are simple, easily recognized and culturally relevant. Because the system retrieves language in a knowing and clever way, a Carnegie Mellon University programmer and linguist, who worked on its early development, coined the grammatical finesse of the system as “artificial, artificial intelligence or A squared I.”

Pictures and icons naturally evoke multiple ideas. For example, the icon of a bed can express the words bed (noun), tired (adjective), sleep (verb), among others. “The Minspeak approach,” Dr. Baker pointed out, “systematically uses the natural inclination to associate multiple meanings with a single picture or icon.”

Baker noted that Minspeak systems have defined linguistic patterns used for organizing and saying words. A verb is said with one or two icons, followed by a verb tense key (Mr. Action Man). He added that an individual learns a small set of about 40 to 80 multiple-meaning icons that remain in fixed locations on a touchscreen display. An operator then “learns” the simple patterns for combining these icons. After each icon sequence, the speech-generating device (SGD) speaks the coded word.   

Minspeak programs are loaded into SGDs. Since the early 1980s, the Prentke Romich Company (exclusive licensee) has used the Minspeak approach in AAC devices. After an independent evaluation by a licensed speech-language pathologist, the UNITY system can be selected to meet the needs of the non-speaking client.

A derivative work of UNITY, the UNIDAD (bilingual) software, enables Spanish-speaking clients to learn and speak Spanish. Because the keyboard layout and icon codes are essentially the same in Spanish and English, learning English can be that much faster. This one-of-a-kind graphic system may be available one day for any individual to learn Spanish or English or both.

“Minspeak language programs are now used around the world,” Baker emphasized. “Each program has a linguistic foundation for the language spoken, and each language comes with a set of culturally appropriate icons.

Despite his achievements in language representation, Dr. Baker is not one to rest contentedly. He has a vision for the future. “We’re now creating a curriculum for our Spanish/English UNIDAD system. We feel the same excitement as we did 35 years ago when we launched our first English-language system.”    

For information on the UNITY and UNIDAD language systems, go to