Twenty easy-peasy tips for supporting language development

Happy Children Playing Kids

Happy Children Playing Kids (Photo credit: epSos.de)

When Nica was only a baby, I was nervous about not knowing how to talk to her to help her develop language. Does that sound odd? I don’t know where I got that from, honestly. Lots of people will say ‘oh, they’ll learn sooner or later, one way or another, just from being around people talking’… While that is true, I have also found, from all the research I did to allay those initial first-time-mom nerves, that there are attitudes, approaches and techniques that some parents develop naturally (while others may need to learn them) that can make a difference to how much and how fast children learn language. Each child is unique and even applying this ‘program’ equally to all children would not of course ensure they were all speaking in full sentences by the age of one… but it is about maximising their potential for acquiring new language.

Afterall, not all households are equal in the way that children are exposed to language. For example…

  • Is there continual background noise from TV or radio or long periods of silence in which to explore making sounds? Do adults mostly talk to each other over the child or do they involve the child and talk directly to them?
  • And if they are talking directly to the child are they asking incessant, ‘testing’ questions or are they putting words to what he sees?
  • For that matter, are they trying to shift the kids onto their adult view point or are they entering the child’s world and speaking about what the child sees from their eye-level and about what is interesting to them?
  • Do grown-ups get down and talk to children eye-to-eye or shout at them from across the room and then get mad if the kid doesn’t immediately follow their ‘order’?
  • Is there one language in the household or two (or more) and how much do they overlap by?
  • Is the baby treated like a package to be moved here or there or are they treated with respect and like they understand so much, from day one?…

Yes, there are many, many variables which means there are things that work better and things that are less helpful when it comes to a child picking up language.

As I say, I was nervous, so I read a lot (that is what I do, when I feel adrift). So, now, I want to share with you all some of the things I learned on that journey of how to tune in and help our children develop their language skills to the best of their ability and in their own time – without ever pushing, testing or putting any pressure on them to know any more than they feel enthused to learn for themselves. We are very much following their lead, here, but doing it from an informed point of view, rather than just hoping for the best.

Here are my top tips for talking to the zero to two year old set:

  1. Turn off the TV. Even if you are a hard-core tele-addict (which honestly I can empathise with), try and turn off the TV even if for only 30 minutes a day – but more is better. Babies are unable to distinguish background from foreground sound. Any background noise seriously messes up their chances of focussing on the sounds coming out of your mouth… or the toy they are banging on, or even the sounds they themselves are uttering. They need to be able to really pick apart which sounds they are creating, what is doing what, which sound is coming from whose mouth etc. This helps them build their first understanding of cause and effect as well as help them begin to build associations between words and objects or people. The more clearly they can hear you, the faster they can begin to learn. So, give it a go: turn off the TV, especially before your kids are two.
  2. Carve out half an hour a day of one-to-one time with each child:  You are dedicating this half an hour a day to connect and communicate with your child – is this not what being a parent is all about? The idea is that you let them lead the exploration and play, completely, in this time. And, of course, make sure there is no background noise or interruptions. It can feel hard, to begin with, to just ‘be’, with no props, just you watching and following your kid’s lead in play but the pay-off is immense in terms of closeness, understanding and language development. Ideally you are aiming for half an hour per day with each child – if you can’t do that, do as close to that as you can: 15 minutes with each child/a day or 30 minutes with one kid one day, 30 minutes with another the next. The important thing is that you have one-to-one time where all the language is for them. Here is my first post on this practice and the research that led to it.
  3. Create shared focus: apart from the no TV rule, this is the single most important tip I ever received about supporting emerging language skills: talk about what they are interested in, at the time they are interested in it. Children are far more likely to remember a word if it is about something they are focussed on – this is proven. In the case of babies (and this applies to toddlers, too, really) the best way to create shared focus is for you to jump onto their wavelength. Don’t try and pull them to yours (“look at that birdie”; “play with this toy, this way”), all the time. Try and use this as time to get to know your child and what fascinates them and holds their attention. And then speak about what they are engaged with, or in other words…
  4. ‘Sportscast’. Narrate (from the child’s view point) what they are seeing, touching, smelling, hitting, etc. – especially for that half-hour a day but also at other opportune moments in the day. This is a version of what Magda Gerber, author and founder of RIE (Resources for Infant Educators), calls ‘sportscasting’. It works wonders not only for helping children interface with the world but later, as they grow older, with other children, too, even averting and disarming all manner of childish spats. But at the tender ages when language is first developing (say between 9 and 15 months) the primary purpose of narrating a child’s activities back to them, in my view, is to give them words for that which they are experiencing. And, as I said above, children learn the most when it is something they are actively engaged in (rather than something we want to teach them). It is amazing how much a child’s first words can reveal to us about what their priorities are. My kid’s first signs (which came before spoken words) were all about things which she loved, like ducks, ceiling fans and lights – hah!
  5. Scaffold: my mum, the language teacher, tells me this is a term coined by Vygotsky. If I understand it correctly, it is basically a fancy word for continuing to speak to your kid about one level ahead of where they are at, if that makes sense. You provide the ‘scaffolding’ for them to learn at their own pace. You don’t speak to them in long, rushed, complicated sentences that are way above their ‘pay grade’; nor do you speak about stuff that is not in the room and expect them to understand (not when they are babies, at least); you also don’t need to teach them with flash cards… nor, to go to the other extreme, do you need to either talk down to them or, worse still, talk to them like Elmo or like you yourself are a toddler who doesn’t quite grasp grammar yet (‘daddy take ba-ba’?!). Talk to babies in real sentences with real words but…
  6. Keep it simple. Make sure to enunciate and speak clearly. Not all the time, in some uber-self-conscious kind of a way. They need to hear natural speech flow with its inflections, emphasis, tone, etc… but when you are speaking directly to them, it can be helpful to think of babies almost like little foreigners to whom you do the respect of speaking with easy, ‘beginner’ words, with clarity and enthusiasm. But mix it up and pop some more advanced words in there every now and again – they may surprise you and repeat a five syllable word right back at you.
  7. Have fun. Nothing squelches learning faster than being ‘taught’ or worse still, being ‘corrected’. That just presses us back into our emotional shells where we want to hide until we know we will be safe rather than humiliated or made to feel small. So for the sake of your child’s learning but also for the health of your relationship and, perhaps more importantly, just for your own enjoyment as a family, keep it light, joyful and playful.
  8. Learn and share basic sign languageI have blogged much about this before, but essentially, babies are able to communicate using their hands months before they are able to do so with sound. This is because it only takes a few muscles to shape your hand into a sign whereas speaking involves coordinating your breathing, your vocal chords, your mouth shape, your tongue position – all together. It is no wonder it takes a while to master. Children as young as six months can make their first signs. It gives you a real window of insight into a child’s mind, what they notice, what they are interested in but most importantly it gives them an avenue to begin to express to you all that is inside them, from basic needs like ‘milk’ or ‘potty’ to their wonder of the world (‘cat’!!). Research has also shown that babies who are taught to sign actually benefit from a lasting boost to not only their language skills but also their IQ so that at “8 years, those who had used sign language as babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ on the WISC-III than their non-signing peers.”
  9. Be responsive: when your baby coos, coo back; when they ga-ga, ga-ga right back at them. This is the first lesson in communication: that we listen and respond, that we take turns, that we talk to each other – this is all valuable information that babies use as foundation for learning how to talk.
  10. Be positive. As they get older and start to use real words, make sure to notice and emphasise what they are getting right. In fact, it is a helpful rule of thumb to respond to most attempts at labelling something by saying ‘Yes‘. They say ‘bid’ you say ‘yes, it is a bird’. This helps build their confidence that, first and foremost, you did understand what they were trying to communicate. Then any ‘correction’ is easier to receive, too, right and kind of seamless. I call it ‘auto-correct’:
  11. Aut0-correct. If they make a mistake no need to make a big song and dance about it, afterall they are only little and, frankly, doing an AMAZING job at picking up language from scratch at an alarming rate, I am sure. So instead of saying ‘no, it is not a do-d0, it is a dog, can you say DOG?’, try simply repeating back to the child what they said but using ‘auto-correct’ (like a kind of auto-tune but for words – lol). They say ‘it is a do-do’, you say, ‘yes, it is a dog’ (correction made and heard. No fuss.)
  12. Practice expansion. ‘Expansion’ in this context, is when you gently, lovingly, seamlessly expand on what your child has just said – this is a part of scaffolding, really. You repeat what they said back to them but add onto it, for example they say ‘ball’ you say, “Yes, it is a red ball” – you expanded on what they said emphasising one word addition to what they said. As they get older and bolder you can get fancy with this but the basics of ‘expansion’ is just about agreeing and adding to what they are saying in very small increments so that they are anchored in a word they do know and can add another one on, in the right place, with your help.
  13. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If there is a new object or word you are noticing they are interested in, repeat it in different contexts. ‘Ah, you see the crane. It is a big crane, isn’t it? Shall we go take a closer look at that blue crane?’, etc…
  14. Make sound effects: kids adore them. A love of language and communication starts often with a love of sounds, of exchanging them backward and forward between mama and baby (or papa or granny or… and baby). It doesn’t need to be about words, animal sounds, the car vrooooooming by, the prellllllllll sound you make when you pick baby up and the ‘ping’ of the toaster popping (repeated by daddy for fun) can all become little ‘word games’ that delight your little listener.
  15. Read or recite lots of fun little nursery rhymes – kids enjoy them and the ability to recognise and create rhymes is an important milestone in a child’s language development that shows how they are grasping and manipulating sounds. Kids especially like the ones with accompanying actions like ‘pat-a-cake’ or ‘ring around the roses’.
  16. Read simple books with lots of repetition to build word-familiarity. (but don’t worry, they’ll make sure you really get the ‘repetition’ part of this tip.)
  17. Sing – singing is another fun way to practice new words, often with rhyming, too. And because of the rhythm, it can make it easier to memorise.
  18. Tell stories. I am a huge fan of story telling for kids. The little ones especially like stories about themselves, either real or imagined (as long as they are the protagonists). Auto-biographical stories like this actually help integrate the right and the left hemispheres of the brain as well as to provide narrative for events of emotional significance in a child’s life. The book ‘The Whole Brain Child’ by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson really goes into the power of story telling as a technique not only for locking-in vocabulary but also for developing memory (exercising it like a muscle, really) – as well as for processing and integrating difficult or emotional events (such as a car accident, for example – although I feel that is food for another post). I also LOVE this post by Jennifer of Hybrid Rasta Mama on the power of story telling for young children. I am convinced our daily ritual of a bedtime story has really helped my daughter remember words for the things and people she sees each day in a way she would not otherwise do.
  19. Get down to their level, engage in eye contact and let them read your lips: this is such a simple tip and yet it can yield great benefits. And it is all about respect, too – you are showing them you care and respect them enough to make the effort to come to where they are and look them in the eye while you talk to them. Who doesn’t feel appreciated when they are engaged with, fully? Plus kids can learn a lot from simply mimicking the shapes you make with your mouth as you talk.
  20. Listen. When a kid talks, pay attention. If possible, ‘listen with your eyes’ as we say in our family. Demonstrate that you are really engaged in what they are saying by focussing on them with all your energy for a moment (even if to say, ‘I need to give the cooking my full attention right now, but you are really important to me and I want to hear what you have to say, so as soon as I am done here, it will be your turn and I will give you my full attention’)…
Put it together and what do you get? An awareness and enjoyment of language exploration with your kid, that is non-stop, along with half an hour a day of dedicated one-on-one connection and communication time, free of distractions, that is all about following your child’s lead and talking about the things (toys, animals, movements) that catch their eye and that are interesting to them. You really learn a lot about your child doing this and as a result both of you feel more and more in tune. It is also proven to boost not only their language skills but their IQ, too – in the long run. Why not give this approach a try?
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See also

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Please note: I am neither a childcare professional nor a speech therapist. I am a mom and the above is my opinion only and is not a substitute for professional advice. If you suspect your child has any language delays you should speak to your doctor or seek the help of a specialist that can help your child overcome any potential or actual issues.

With love,

~Gauri

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How I became the crazy Baby-Signs-woman (and how you could, too!)

When I was pregnant I heard about this quirky little thing called Baby Sign Language. Apparently – I was told – babies can learn how to use sign language before they can speak. Baby Sign Language is mostly advertised as being good to reduce toddler frustration (at not being able to tell you what they really, really want right now!). I googled it and found this super-cute (if a bit manic) video:

The whole thing sounded interesting and after all if monkeys can sign, I figured my little one could, too!… But watching the video I thought “This baby can do 30 signs! That is crazy. If I do it I’ll just teach my kid about 5 or 10 signs, the really important things she needs to communicate to me – sleep, toilet, food, water… that kind of thing. Surely the woman in the video is some kind of pushy-super-uber-mom with too much time on her hands. I’ll just keep it simple and help my kid express the key things that will keep her from wigging out.” Good plan. God laughed.

At 19 months my kid had over 200 signs. How the ‘eck did that happen?!

Gzzzzzzzzzzzz – rewind a bit, again.

This is how it went down. After hearing about it, still not entirely convinced, I got out the book Baby Signs by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn (albeit in its first edition – which is kind of sweet in its dated-ness). The book got me and I got really, really into this idea of teaching my kid to sign. I have since realised that I have a keen interest in language and watching and supporting my kid acquire hers, in general… but I didn’t know that then, this was just the start of the journey.

Through my research, I discovered sign language has a few (inter-related) advantages and I liked them all:

  1. It helps your baby communicate with you – telling you what is important to them and what they want you to focus on, with them
  2. It helps you know what is going on for them, opening a (super-interesting) window on your child’s mind and helping you get even closer to them
  3. It reduces the frustration, for your child, of knowing what they want but not being able to tell you
  4. It acts as a bridge to language, priming their brain to learn the to-and-fro of communication more easily and earlier
  5. It improves cognitive function and IQ – and research indicates the results are lasting
  6. It is good fun [honestly that is probably the main reason we went so far with it: because I was loving it, too]
  7. It is a great language to share as a family. You and your partner can have fun signing across a crowded room or over your kid’s head when they are not looking :p  And older siblings often love showing signs to their new little sibs :)

This book taught me many of my first signs. At this stage, though, I became convinced it would really help if both parents were on board, so I thought the easiest and most fun way to involve NinjaDad would be to go to a class – so he/we could learn in a social setting. As luck would have it, a friend decided to host a class at her house – so we joined that one. The instructor would come in and teach us, on a weekend – perfect! And so it was that NinjaDad started to get really excited by it, too.

We taught our kid her first sign when she was six months old. That sign was food and I repeated it every time she had a meal. She signed her first word when she was nine months old. That means there was a three month gap in which I was signing frantically to her and I was getting nothing back. I almost gave up. Her first sign was ‘fan’ – as in ceiling fan. Her next two signs were ‘duck’ and ‘light’. She didn’t sign ‘food’ until she was over a year old (and had well over 50 signs under her belt). That taught me my first lesson: she is going to be most enthusiastic and motivated to sign about the things that she finds interesting not about the things I think are important. Hahahah! I guess I should be flattered, as a mom, that she never felt she had an urgent need to ask for food…
Then we just kept going. I was forever wondering when we’d stop. Oh, I’ll only teach her 50 or so. But then we’d get to 50 and her thirst for knowing more and more would egg me on. She would point at things and look at me expectantly. So I bought a book, initially a simple ASL visual dictionary, so I could look up the signs she wanted to learn from me. Eventually that book stopped fulfilling all our needs (as it was not geared to kids, I guess) and I caughtened on to the fact that the easiest way to look up signs is online. And we were off. Her signed vocab kept growing and growing. And, alongside, her first words were coming in, too.
Then, at around 18 months there was a shift, and her interest in spoken words became much more acute than her interest in signs. At 19 months, as I said, she had just over 200 signs and coincidentally she had 200 spoken words, too (yes I kept lists). And that is where it stopped. She just started acquiring so many new spoken words and at such a speed that she seemed to have no need for signs any more. She was off.
And here is that other thing they say about signers: they sometimes use spoken words a little later, but they catch up quickly and often overtake the ‘average’ non-signing kid. Signing kids tend to have an aptitude for language, acquiring new words and moving on to complex sentences earlier than otherwise expected.
Honestly it is hard to tell for me. Most of my AP friends’ babies have stupidly large vocabs for their ages. And, of course, Anya (giving up on nicknames!!) is billingual, too, so goodness knows what that does to all this but I can say (with frank admiration) that at 21 months she speaks in five and six word sentences, with aplomb.
Yes, some of it is ‘nature’. Some kids are more interested in language than others, of course. But I am also convinced (and studies show) that there is more to it, too. There are things that help your kid develop language (and subsequently boost their IQ), such as:
  • speaking with them, describing the world and what you are doing, ‘narrating’ your day
  • developing ‘shared focus’ – speaking about what they are  looking at or interacting with in that moment, following their natural interest
  • getting down at eye level and letting them read your lips, literally (giving them valuable information about how to form their mouths around the words)
  • reading books, singing songs together, having fun with language and sounds
  • being supportive, positive and responsive when children attempt to communicate, in any form

and

  • teaching kids sign-language
So, if your baby is between say 4 and 14 months old and you want to teach them sign language, here are some tips for starting:
  1. get a book on baby sign language (from the library?) to get you into it and/or
  2. go online and read more about the history and benefits of it
  3. go to a local Baby Signs or baby ASL class or
  4. just jump right in: go straight to a sign language site and learn a few signs to teach your baby and then follow their lead on which to learn next
  5. involve your partner and other family members
  6. be consistent – keep repeating the sign every time the object or action appears in your shared field of view
  7. make sure you sign about what they are interested in or looking at at the time (try not to direct them to look at things, so much – it is more effective to ‘sports-cast’ the world from their eye’s view than to try to get them to look at what we think they should/would be interested in, all the time)
  8. be patient – depending on your kid’s age and how consistent you are with it, it could take many months before they produce their first sign back to you. The younger the child, the longer it takes
  9. check-out the Baby Sign books for kids for another cute way to show your kid some signs – and let them think they can ‘read’
  10. have fun with it, include lots of silly, playful signs. Does your child play with your kitty a lot? Learn the sign for cat. Does your kid love balloons? That is a super-sweet sign.

And remember ASL is a real language (sorry if that is too obvious to bear!) which means that your kid will be (at least) billingual if you teach them ASL. If you keep it up with them, which some families chose to do, it opens a world of opportunity up to them: ASL can be taken for credit in College, it can lead to a career or vocation in interpreting or teaching sign language (for the kids or the hearing impaired) and, perhaps most importantly, it can help communicate with a group of people, a community which otherwise can be so separate from this hearing community of ours. This could even be a small step in bringing these two worlds closer. But let’s keep it basic for now. After all, I am the ‘crazy baby signs woman’, my kid knows 200 signs which means I know considerably more than that and I still can’t really communicate with a true signer. I can’t keep up. But this is a step, a fun step in the right direction and a great leap for your kid’s language skills. Do it. I promise you’ll (eventually) have lots of fun with it!

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Did you teach your kid(s) signing? How was it for you? Did they take to it? Did you find you became the crazy-sign-language-parent, too?

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P.S. this post is littered with links – check ’em out for more tips, research and resources.

The other dada (or: when, oh, when will she call me Mama?)

On the other hand, at 14 months, Anya still doesn’t call me Mama! For the last six months, I have been dada (along with the other dada). She knows the difference, she’ll point at the right one of us in response to our ‘names’ but she calls us both dada. If she sees a photo of the two of us together, she we’ll point at K. and say ‘dada’ and point at me and say ‘dada’ while signing milk. She gets it… she just doesn’t bother using the other title. To be fair she also calls random people on the street dada, quite often. We figure it is just her word for person… although I will say she says it with way more zest and enthusiasm when greeting her dad from work. ‘DAADAAAAA!!!’

play

This is quite an emotional subject. I mean we all melt (I can only assume) at the sound of our own child calling our name, especially for the first time. Apparently it is common for this to happen, for a baby to pick one name (either mama or dada) and call both parents that for a time. Thankfully I have met plenty of other moms who say the exact same thing happened at their house – it was dadadada all the time. Once, I even ran into somebody I didn’t know at the shop and her kid was saying ‘dada’. I said that is my daughter’s favourite word, too. She got really quite upset as she told me her baby only said ‘dada’ and not ‘mama’ yet. I rambled off something about evolution and the necessity to ensure the baby bonds with the father first, hence why most moms encourage their babies to say ‘dada’ early on, not to mention that in all languages the word for father is composed of some of the first sounds that babies naturally babble by themselves – even deaf ones – such as baba, papa, dada. Most dads I know will gleefully claim any of those as their ‘name’ if they hear the baby saying it… or at least the mom will claim it for them. There is also research that proves (?) first babies look more like their fathers, again, an evolved trait biologically engineered to keep dads around for longer – especially when things get tough and mothers really need their support. Anyway, I digress, the point is it kind of hurts when your kid doesn’t say your name. Does he/she love dada more?  I got over it. I have rationalised it away, as you can tell, and I figure she’ll say mama sooner or later and in the meantime her dada gets to enjoy all the attention, fun and closeness of hearing Anya shout for him when he arrives home from work everyday.

I’ll share an early secret with you, though, Anya has started saying mamamama a lot (a bit like when she was first learning to babble it) and she looks at me for a reaction (maybe ‘cos she knows that sound will get a reaction) but it fills my heart with joy and my spirit with hope. Could it be soon?

Baby Sign Language: breakthroughs and bloopers

Highland cow

Image via Wikipedia

Anya has over 100 signs. She amazes me. On top of that she has ‘words’ (mostly sound effects) for another 20 or so things – most of those are for animals, food and things that go vrooom, really. Actual words are still few – four or five, perhaps, and those are all baby words, not full grown-up versions. Still that means that at 14 months she has a combined vocab of over 130 words. My favourite sound-word, at the moment, is ‘tata’ which is her attempt at bicicleta (bicycle in Portuguese).

My favourite sign? oh I have so many… I love that she has signed ‘Thank you’ when I gave her something and I think it is adorable when she signs ‘heart’ with added ‘thump, thump’ sound effect, but, I have got to say the sign for ‘balloon’ is sooo sweet, too, as she fills her little cheeks, blows and expands her hands out .

While I am proud of every one of her signs, I also laugh my head off when she gets them wrong. Recently it amused me no end that I gave her some humus and she did the sign for cow (yes, mama kind of said the word ‘moo’). I also like some of the word confusion like when I say sauce in Portuguese (molho) she points at my eye (olho – in Portuguese!)

Signs she does get right include not only the obvious like ‘airplane’, ‘sheep’ (complete with ‘baaah’) and ‘peas’ but also more abstract concepts like ‘open’, ‘more’ and ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ (and she mostly gets those right – she signs ‘hot’ when her food is steaming… or when we walk by a fridge – it is a work in progress, but she does get that it refers to a temperature change). The whole process of learning is incredible to watch and I am ever so grateful to Baby Signs (which is basically ASL which some smart alecs had the insight of applying to pre-verbal babies) for showing me how much my child understands at this age. I suppose she would understand roughly the same number of words and ideas if she wasn’t signing but she wouldn’t be able to show me that she got it (like someone laid up in bed who can hear and reason, but not talk or write – aaarrggh)… although in truth it is likely that signs are also a catalyst propelling her to learn more and more, buoyed by her early success in communicating and, most importantly, getting what she wants, whether it is to be picked up, to eat raisins (in particular) or to tell mama there is a squirrel over there, in the distance.  I swear I saw a light go on, over her head, when she realised she could get her needs met by expressing herself to those who love her.

I find myself particularly impressed by how patient Anya is with me when I misinterpret one of her signs – she’ll just point at the correct thing to help me figure it out or sign it again with sounds until I get it. She’ll also helpfully disambiguate signs that are similar. For example her sign for ‘all done’ (waving two hands) becomes ever so similar to her sign for ‘music’ (pretty much waving two hands). If we are at meal time and she starts waving her hands, I might say ‘you want music?’ and she’ll cleverly (if a bit frantically and desperately) start signing ‘wash hands’ and pulling at her bib. Oh, you are all done! The opposite is also true, if I guess ‘all done’ when she means ‘music’ she’ll helpfully point at the stereo while swaying her body side-to-side, so I get her meaning.

She is now doing two and even three word sentences – by combining signs and sounds. This milestone isn’t usually reached until the child is about 18 months, as I understand it, if they are not signing. Sentences, if you’ll allow me to call them that, include things like: ‘more’ ‘rice cakes’ (both signed); ‘where is’ (sign) ‘dada’ (sound); ‘book – baby – sleep’ (all signed) when describing the book with the sleeping baby on the cover; or ‘music’ (sign) ‘woof-woof’ (sound) when she wants me to put on the song about the doggy. She knows what she wants – and thanks to signs she can be very specific in asking for it.

What’s the baby sign for ‘this is awesome’?

Cover of "Baby Signs"

Cover of Baby Signs

We had our first baby signing class the other day. It was very sweet. I had read the Baby Signs book a couple of months back and got totally sold on the idea of signing to my baby. Why, you ask?

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…

Baby Talk: How to boost your child’s language skills (a programme for 9 to 13mo babies)

Here is something I have been meaning to share for ages. A few months back, now, I read a book called Baby Talk by Dr. Sally Ward. In it she describes a programme she has developed through her clinical work as a speech therapist in the UK. She originally worked with children with delayed language acquisition (among other issues). She got a big wad of funding from the North West Regional Health Authority for some in-depth research on what worked best to improve and accelerate children’s language learning. While the programme was developed for kids with language impairments of different kinds, it turns out that it can be applied to children whose language development is ‘normal’ and in this case it significantly boosts their language and communication skills.

This book is tremendous and I really recommend it. I will say it is written in a very repetitive even, in my view, lazy way with far too much copy-and-paste going on for my liking. But if you ignore how badly it is written (ironically seeing as it is a book about language and communication) the actual programme she is sharing with us is really fantastic.

It is geared to doing three things:

  1. Increase your child’s attention span by building on their ability to concentrate and focus – this is the first step in developing a deep enjoyment of self-directed learning
  2. Improve your child’s listening skills – key to learning in a school setting
  3. Develop your child’s language and communication skills – which correlate highly with ability to use higher reasoning and therefore with IQ

I gleaned a number of insights from reading this book such as understanding that babies really can’t distinguish between foreground sounds (e.g. the sound of a rattle in their hand) and background sounds (such as a plane flying above our house or the TV playing the other side of the room). I got a better picture of what does and what does not help my child pick up language. But it is really this programme she recommends, the practicing of it, which stands to bring real results.

I got the book from the library, just found it there by accident (I tend to go to the library, head for the child development section and just see what is in this week and take whatever grabs my fancy) but I am thinking of buying the book so I have a copy for me as a reference guide. I like her age-by-age language development guide, which does for language milestones what ‘What to Expect When You Are Expecting’ does for embryo development milestones.

So, the programme… Sally (can I get personal with Dr Ward for a moment?!) proposes that we spend half an hour a day, every day, with our child, one-to-one just talking and playing. You may or may not want to do it in this structured way, but let me share the key components of the programme, as they stood out to me, as things anyone can incorporate in their interactions with their kid. You may know many of them already, but there may be one or two that are new and valuable to you.

So, the keys are that during this focussed time you spend with your child it should be:

  • one-to-one with no other people distracting or removing focus. This means making half an hour quality play time for each of your kids.
  • in a completely silent environment, with no background noise so that the child learns to really hear both the sounds you and she/he make but also the sounds her toys and other objects make. Like this they can really learn about cause and effect – eg when I hit this toy it makes that sound. Conversely a child brought up always immersed in background noise (eg TV) can have real difficulties listening and picking out important sounds – which can lead to speech and language delays. So sad…
  • child-led. They call this having ‘shared focus’ but at this age it means that you have really got to focus in on what the baby is paying attention to and give words to what she/he is seeing, doing, tasting, etc. This might be the most important step of all.
  • responsive. Make sure you answer your baby’s vocalisations. That gives her/him instant feedback, a chance to hear it played back but also an understanding of timing and of how conversations work i.e. I talk and you listen, then you talk and I listen, etc.
  • simple. In this half hour, keep your words short and your sentences simple and always grammatically correct. Create a string of short sentences which repeat and emphasise a key word you are trying to impart for example: Here is the ball. It is a blue ball. Mommy is holding the ball.
  • don’t ask ‘testing’ questions. Remembering Sally is a Speech Therapist and mostly deals with problem cases, she has often seen kids whose language skills became inhibited by over-eager parents who incessantly asked questions like ‘what is this called, little Jonny?’, ‘can you say the name for that’. This can really frustrate and puts kids off language all together – especially if they don’t immediately know the answer – plus it is pulling focus to what the parent wants them to look at rather than following the kid’s natural interest, which really is the best way to help them learn.
  • be positive. When your kid starts speaking, always celebrate or acknowledge what they do get right, even if you need to correct it slightly. Say they say ‘kiki’ for kitty. It is great they have a sound for the cat. You can respond with ‘Yes, it is the kitty’ – that immediately tells the child two things a) you like it and understand when they talk; b) the correct word is kitty. Be patient with them :)
  • have fun. If language is fun and kids are getting a kick out of being able to actually communicate and have their needs, wants and likes acknowledged and responded to they will want to communicate more. And you will enjoy it, too. This kind of approach is really about spending quality time with your little one and increasing the closeness and bond between you.

I didn’t think I would do this program when I read the book. I thought ‘I’ll read the book and get some interesting tidbits that I then apply throughout the day when we converse’. After a few chapters, though, I was convinced to give the programme (the full half hour) a go. And, to my surprise, I really liked it. So, I am not doing it, now, because it is ‘good for my daughter’ so much as because it is fun. Sharing focus with Anya I find I really have a new inlet into what she is learning, what is interesting to her now and I genuinely feel closer to her. This may or may not help her language skills. According to the book the boost is considerable and on average children who went through this programme were at least a year ahead of their peers in terms of language skills by the time they got to school and this often translates to higher IQs, too… but of course I don’t know what my daughter’s ‘starting’ IQ is so it is hard to be sure looking at just one child, whether it is working. So, no, I am doing it for me, for us, for fun, first and foremost and whatever fruits may come in the future will be a bonus (insh’Allah).

Here’s an article looking critically at Sally’s work, a few years back: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/193239.stm

Though I will say from what I read in the book this is a programme that can be started at any age before  4 years  (not just in the 9 to 13 month window described here – which I think may pertain to her earlier thinking). I reckon at any age it is bound to be useful. At the very least it helps me really notice what is interesting to my child and let that dictate the direction of our play, often.