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Archive: 24 October 2005

Reading the Signs

Back in January, I wrote about teaching Carolyn sign language, and enough time has passed and things changed that it seems like a good time to revisit the topic.  (Also, our friend Gini wrote about it, and that spurred me into typing.)

As I mentioned back in January, we started out with Baby Signs but moved on to American Sign Language (ASL).  This has held true, and when the next child comes into our lives, we’ll use only ASL signs.  To me, the real value of Baby Signs is in showing you where to start: with needs like food, water, milk, and so on.  In moving to ASL, we’ve been immensely helped by the Signing Time video series, which Carolyn loves.  She watches one every other day or so, which is about as much TV as we let her watch, and she can identify each one with a different sign.

At the time I last wrote about it, Carolyn was using about thirty signs.  She’s now somewhere past two hundred signs—I don’t know the exact number, as Kat and I lost track a while ago.  This includes all the primary colors, emotional states, and much more.  She’s also started to speak, with about twenty or so verbal words.  It gets really fascinating when she combines them.

For example, she’s started asking me if I’m done working whenever I come downstairs from my office.  She does this by saying “Daddy?” while signing “work” and then “done”.  If I confirm that I’m done working for the day (or at least for the moment), she’ll do it all over again, except this time saying “Daddy” in a satisfied tone of voice instead of as a question.  Then we spend some time playing.

In fact, one of these exchanges led to Carolyn telling me what she wanted to do when she grows up.  After confirming that Daddy was done working for the day, she thought a minute, then signed “work” and emphatically pointed to herself.

You want to work?” I asked, a little bit surprised.  She nodded and said “yeah!” (one of her favorite spoken words).

“Okay”, said I, amused, “what do you want to do when you work?”

She thought a moment more and then signed “airplane”.  My mouth dropped open.

“You want to be a pilot?” I asked.

She said “yeah!” again, quite enthusiastically, and then ran off to kick a ball across the yard.

Now, it’s possible that Carolyn was saying that she wants to do whatever Daddy does, because when he leaves for a few days, he’s left on a plane.  But my gut feeling was that she was saying she wanted to work on or with airplanes.  Attendant, sure; engineer, why not?; but pilot was the first thing that came to mind.

Then again, about a week later, she told us she wanted to work on swings and slides.  So I guess she’s still evaluating her options.

She also can identify different bedtime stories through signs and speech.  “The Bear’s Water Picnic” is represented by the sign for “water”; “Goodnight Moon” by the sign for “moon”; “Pete the Sheep” by the spoken word “baa”; and so on.  Although she usually picks the same set of stories each night, she can clearly tell us when she wants something different.

For months now, Carolyn’s been able to distinguish between being hurt and being scared when she falls down.  As we hold her, we just ask her if the fall hurt or scared her, and she tells us.  That alone would have made the whole effort worthwhile, because she has told us what the problem is, and so we know how best to comfort her.  It also seems to calm her down simply to tell us, the same way it can make an adult feel better just to say out loud what is upsetting them.

She can also tell us when we’re being silly, when she’s surprised, and more.  When a baby near her cries, she always looks concerned.  We can tell her that the baby is sad, or grumpy, or hungry, and she can sign back the emotion to indicate she understands.

So has signing delayed her speech?  There’s no way to know.  Her speaking vocabulary is on track, according to our pediatrician: some kids do speak early, but to have three spoken words at 18 months is normal, and she was at five.  Plus over 100 signs, which has caused our pediatrician to consider her bilingual.  According to the father of a deaf child with whom I recently conversed, most independent studies show that signing has no major impact, positive or negative, on speech development, at least across the whole study group.

Regardless of whether or not the signing has slowed or sped Carolyn’s development of speech, it has quite definitely accelerated her ability to communicate.  That, to me, was the whole reason to use signs.  For a year now, she’s been able to communicate her needs and wants, and for at least half a year she’s been able to converse with us in some fairly complex ways.

Perhaps as a result of this, Carolyn is entirely capable of following multistep directions, like: “Please go pick up the stuffed cow and put it where it belongs, then come back to Mommy”.  If she’s nervous about a person or situation, we can find out what’s bothering her and show her that it’s okay; conversely, we can tell her when something is dangerous when it might not appear to be, like a hot plate, and get confirmation that she understands.  We’ve been able to teach her to sign “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me”, and she understands when each is appropriate, sometimes saying them without prompting.  We can get her to calm down for a not-desired nap by asking what she wants to do instead of napping, and then telling her she can do it later, after she takes the nap.  In other words, she’ll agree to delay gratification, so long as we assure her that she’ll get what she wants after doing something that we want her to do.

Remember that she’s not yet two years old.

While Kat and I sometimes augment our words with signs, most of the time we just talk to Carolyn, and she responds with whatever combination of words and signs is needed.  So she has all kinds of exposure to speech, and her development in that regard seems fairly normal.  It could be that she’d have spoken earlier without the signs, but then again it could be that she’d have spoken later.  Maybe the signs have reduced the incentive to speak because she can get by without speech, or maybe the signs have shown her how powerful communication is and thus increased the incentive to speak.

We have no way to know, now or ever.  All that I know is that she has been communicating with us for many, many months more than she would have otherwise, and that she’s almost certainly a much happier and better-adjusted child as a result.

Back in May, I said that “…if you’re a new parent or a parent-to-be, I strongly recommend that you try this with your own baby”.  Take that sentiment and increase it by an order of magnitude.  I truly believe it’s one of the best parenting decisions we ever made.

October 2005
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