Well, a lot of parents around here sign to their babies which got me curious about it, in the first place. Originally, I thought I might do it with just a few words (like food, milk, toilet, water – basic stuff she might want to get my attention about). I thought it would help us bridge the few months between Anya knowing what she wants and being able to express it clearly and efficiently. My reasoning was that that would reduce the guessing for me and the frustration for her. Then I read the book and my view of what this could do for us expanding considerably.
It turns out teaching your baby sign language (which they can master well before then can speak) essentially teaches them the basic principles of communication (the give and take, to and fro, negotiation and the ability to describe, request, share, etc). And this, it turns out, has lasting effects on their ability to communicate throughout life (not just as toddling cuties). A study by the book’s authors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn revealed that even when signing kids grow up and are fully eight years old they are on average a year ahead of their non-signing peers in terms of language skills. Outstanding. I never saw this coming – and neither did they, apparently. It seems having people respond to and validate their interests and desires from so early on only seems to increase babies’ appetite for learning and talking. By age two, signing babies already have on average double the vocab of non-signing children (as you basically add-in signs to their ‘word count’). But this means they are able to bring your attention to twice as many things – objects or actions. And as you know, already, if you have been following, I have really gotten into language development for my kid, so this is pretty interesting stuff to me, at this point.
I, myself, don’t know why I am so interested in language, suddenly. Perhaps it is because my mom is an English teacher (in Portugal) and has always had a love for words and language. Perhaps it is finally rubbing off on me. Maybe it is because it feels like the only part of Anya’s development I can have an influence on, at this stage, observably, at least. So much seems dictated by genes – when she’ll walk, her temperament, etc. and then there are all the immeasurables and the stuff so hard to control like personality, respect for authority, etc. Language appears to be the only area I can really pour myself into, which requires some skill and hence becomes a fun challenge.
So, we went to our first class. It turns out there is a big divide between baby signing schools. Both are based at least in part on American Sign Language (ASL). However, on one side are those who say go ahead and let your child make some signs up, encourage it even, and use others that are ‘made up’ especially for little hands and baby minds to manage. So, for example, the sign for dog with them is ‘panting’ with your tongue out, like, well, a dog. This is absolutely not an ASL sign.
The other camp teaches babies real American Sign Language. Their view is that you are giving your child an additional language which can serve them for life (and for which you can get credits at College or something – they keep referencing this, but not being American not sure I totally got it). These kids often remember being taught signing as children and want to go back and study it when they get older. Plus they say using real signs a) is totally possible for little babies (proven to be so) and b) ensures you do not make up signs which clash with or even offend the deaf community. Apparently this has happened in the past with some of the baby signs. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say you don’t want your kids doing that sign out in public where there are ASL signers!
The instructor also mentioned that often mothers who teach their kids ASL end up enjoying it so much they go forth and learn the whole system, some have even become sign language interpreters.
Having originally read the book that, though based in ASL, was all about following the baby’s lead and making it as easy as possible for them, I was quite sold on that approach. After all, as they say, the aim is only to get them through a few months (from about 9 or 10 months when they can sign to 18 months when they have quite a few words to communicate their needs). However, in the end, that final argument on the ‘pure’ ASL side swung it for me.
When I was in the UK I started learning British Sign Language (which incidentally is totally different from ASL). I was really enjoying it and then had to stop. Now, I get to do it all over again, learn sign language, but this time with my partner and for my kid. Sweet.
The idea of learning sign language is really appealing to me. It is not just ‘another language’, it feels like there is something special about it for me. Okay there are the basics, like K. and I will be able to sign to each other, when we don’t want to or can’t speak. More than that, though, it opens the possibility of speaking with a whole new group of people, not ‘foreign’ but somehow a completely different community. I am super psyched about this.
So, here I go, on my journey. Now it is fun and helpful to everybody: baby, daddy and me.
… And, just in case you are wondering, the most asked question is ‘won’t this slow down your child’s spoken language acquisition?’. The answer (according to leading research) is: no. In fact signers speak earlier than non-signers, on average. The motto is: ‘just like crawling makes a baby more motivated to learn to walk, signing makes a baby more motivated to talk’.
Now, at 9 months, Anya has her first signs. She signs ‘fan’ (her favourite thing, the ceiling fan) almost as soon as she wakes up, before we are even in the living room, where the fan is – such is her enthusiasm for things that spin. That is her best sign. She has also signed ‘light’ (she likes street lamps), ‘fish’ and ‘more’ (as in ‘more food please’) although all of those are still in the learning phase, I think. So much fun to see her able to ‘talk’ about things, both present and just stuff for which she wants to share her love. Bless…