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:
- It helps your baby communicate with you – telling you what is important to them and what they want you to focus on, with them
- 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
- It reduces the frustration, for your child, of knowing what they want but not being able to tell you
- It acts as a bridge to language, priming their brain to learn the to-and-fro of communication more easily and earlier
- It improves cognitive function and IQ – and research indicates the results are lasting
- It is good fun [honestly that is probably the main reason we went so far with it: because I was loving it, too]
- 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.
- 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
- teaching kids sign-language
- get a book on baby sign language (from the library?) to get you into it and/or
- go online and read more about the history and benefits of it
- go to a local Baby Signs or baby ASL class or
- 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
- involve your partner and other family members
- be consistent – keep repeating the sign every time the object or action appears in your shared field of view
- 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)
- 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
- 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’
- 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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