Monday, July 31, 2006

Baby Sign Language

One of the hottest trends in child development is teaching your baby Sign Language. The popularity is new but the concept is not. My dad taught me to fingerspell and to count in ASL before I went to Kindergarten. Although he has been partially deaf in both ears since he was a teenager, his hearing loss is generally unnoticed by those around him. I do remember attending church services for the Deaf. My dad wanted to expose us to Deaf culture and give us opportunities to practice using American Sign Language. When I later became a teacher, I frequently used fingerspelling to help beginning readers who were struggling with their letters and older readers who were struggling with spelling. I found that the kinesthetic experience of using Sign Language improved their memory and the hand signs for each letter gave them a visual connection between the "alphabet song" and the printed letters on a page.

When my oldest child was a baby, I read a wonderful article in the Spring 1995 issue of Mothering Magazine about using Sign Language to communicate with your baby. I was inspired and taught my daughter a few basic signs including "more," "milk," and "mom." She first used signs at 7 months old and began forming simple sentences at 12 months. This was helpful because although she jabbered constantly, none of the words made sense. Sign Language helped alleviate much of the frustration we might have otherwise experienced during this stage of child development.

When my second child was born, I was given a book called Signing is Fun by Mickey Flodin. It is a pocket size paperback book with great drawings. I had forgotten many of the signs I learned as a child and this little book served as a nice reference that I carried in my purse.

More recently, at a family reunion, my cousin's 18 month old daughter was demonstrating the various American Sign Language signs that she had learned. I was impressed that she knew over a hundred signs rather than the 15 or so that I had taught my children as toddlers. She had learned sign language from watching a program called Signing Time. I decided to purchase a set of Signing Time DVDs for my 1 year old son as a Christmas gift. We love the songs and the simple animation is cute. The Signing Time DVDs are wonderful because they include an explanation and demonstration of each sign followed by children, toddlers and even babies demonstrating the sign. My son loved to watch the other children sign and began imitating them immediately after watching the first program.

Learning new signs is easy. I sit my baby on my lap and we watch the Signing Time DVDs together. We listen to the CD in the car and practice the signs while we drive and sing. My older children enjoy learning the signs along with the baby. The Signing Time web site offers games to improve signing skills along with resources for parents and caregivers. Our family's signing abilities are improving as we use signs to communicate with each other daily. I can quietly talk to my children in church without disturbing others. I even use Sign Language to talk to my husband across the grocery store. My oldest child once used fingerspelling to send me messages while she was in the dentist chair and unable to speak.

My youngest is growing quickly. As his oral speech becomes clearer, he has begun to express a desire to learn more signs. He sometimes invents his own signs for words he does not know. This gives us an excellent opportunity to look up the actual signs. We use a terrific online dictionary provided by the Michigan State University Communication Technology Laboratory.

Unfortunately, I have had well intentioned family members forcefully voice their concern that my children's abilities to communicate in English would be hampered by using sign language. I have never known quite how to gently explain to these individuals that quite the opposite is true. Our family's experience with Sign Language has been overwhelmingly positive. Scientific
shows that children who use Sign Language have earlier language development than their peers. Teaching American Sign Language has never been shown to hinder speech or vocalization. Children who use signs have larger vocabularies and higher IQs. They also have fewer tantrums (presumably because they can ask for what they need and want.)

Try using a few signs with your own children or grandchildren. The time it takes is minimal and the benefits are outstanding. You might find, as we did, that your toddler is trying talk to you but you simply aren't understanding the words he is using. Signing gives young children a "voice" with which to communicate their feelings and needs. Once you experience the fun of teaching your Baby Sign Language, the practicality of signing with your children and the joy of communicating with your toddler in a language you can both understand, you too will want to share the magic of Baby Sign Language with other parents.


Anonymous said...

My daughter and I use sign language on a daily
basis. I, too, have had a lot of negative feedback from others about doing this with
my children. Research does show tons of benefits and children do develop better
verbal vocabularies, sooner, etc. But for me the proof is in the pudding, by the
time my daughter was 2, My husband and I could count on one hand how many times our child became
frustrated from not being able to tell us what she needed or wanted. And after those
few times we quickly looked up the sign for the corresponding things on that
Michigan Website and it never happened again (for example, blanket).
Also, as an occupational therapist, I cannot say enough about how beneficial it
is for the development of fine motor skills, body awareness (which affects all areas
of development, even social), visual perceptual skills, etc. Before my little girl was
walking, she would sit in my lap and love to just write and write with a pen or
pencil - making little circles and lines all over the page. I know signingtime
wasn't the only factor, but I didn't do therapy with her to encourage such advanced
fine motor skills.
Most of all, my dd had success with communicating long before her mouth and voice
were mature enough to form/pronounce words she wanted to communicate. When your 10
month old signs "No" when you hand her water and then signs "more milk" even the
skepticism from others won't detour you. If your child is using around 50 words by
the age of 2, that is average. Mine was using signs for way more than 50 words
before 1 and by the age of 2 she was using well over 100 words clearly. To my
skeptic friends, I do remind them that I teach the word WITH the sign - duh.

Anonymous said...

When my daughter broke her leg and the hospital social
worker started asking questions because she had to
call the child abuse hotline, she asked if her
vocabulary included more than 20 years. I said of
course; and then she asked details on how many words.
I told her I didn't know, she had such a huge
vocabulary because she had learned sign language and
it exploded once she started watching the videos. The
social worker was extremely impressed that we would
teach her sign. It went a long way in her attitude
toward me. I think she knew the whole thing was bogus,
the rest of the staff did. She pointed that out to
every doctor and nurse that came into the room. I
tried to get my little girl to sign for the staff, but she was
in too much pain to do it. She hasn't used it much
since then unfortunately, but the videos accomplished
what we wanted, a good vocabulary. The tantrums due to
communication problems were very, very limited. The kids still love watching the videos.
My 1 year old adores them, he even tries to sign when he
watches. Since I don't make a big deal about it,
people don't say anything to me negative.