After my recent post about teaching Carolyn sign language, several people, many of them new or soon-to-be parents, asked for advice on the basics. Right up front, let me say that I’m not an expert in signing, or early childhood development, or any of that stuff. I’m just a parent who’s tried to do his best for his daughter. That counts for a lot, but this is still just one person’s perspective. Before embarking on any program, consult your physician, blah blah blah. Get me? Cool.
So here’s what we learned, and what we plan to do with our next child. (That’s not a stealth announcement, by the way.)
When we started out, it was with the book Baby Signs by Acredolo and Goodwyn. The Baby Signs program—and it is a whole program now, with franchises and everything—employs a reduced and somewhat simplified subset of American Sign Language (ASL). Many of the Baby Signs are in fact copies of ASL signs, but there are a few that are not. The simplifications are meant to compensate for the lack of fine motor skills in infants. For example, one sign for “dog” is snapping one’s fingers. There’s no way most infants, or even toddlers, are going to be able to snap their fingers. (Heck, some adults can’t manage it.) So the Baby Sign for “dog” is to stick out your tongue and pant like a dog.
Where I think the book really helped us was in laying out the path for where to start, and how to proceed. The basic advice is to start with needs like food, drink, and so on. You make the association by speaking the word and making the sign as they interact with the thing. So when you’re feeding your baby, as the spoon goes in, you say and sign “food”. You do this often at each meal.
The time Acredolo and Goodwyn say to start is when your baby starts waving hello or goodbye to people. This indicates that they have made a connection between a physical movement and a concept. Kat and I, on the other hand, started when Carolyn was six months old, long before she started waving. We kept it up for four months, demonstrating the same few signs over and over as part of our routine. When she ate, we signed “food” and “bottle”; when it was bed time, we signed “sleepy”; and so on. The important things were that we didn’t make a huge deal out of it, and we didn’t stop. We just did it as if it were an everyday thing.
By ten months, Carolyn started to get it, right around the same time she started waving goodbye. By her first birthday, she was able to stay with her grandparents for two days and nights and not throw any tantrums. When she wanted something, she said so. The grandparents, may I say, were astonished; here they had this 12-month-old who would just come up to them and say “hungry”—no fuss, no tears, no tantrums.
(And note the phrasing I just used in that paragraph. To Kat and me, “saying” is now equally applicable to speaking and signing. This experience has altered our view of communication in ways we couldn’t have imagined before we started.)
We most likely could have started at nine months, or even waited until she started waving, and still been successful in teaching her to sign. On the other hand, it may well be that the reason Carolyn has taken her signing so far is we laid a broad foundation for it. On the third hand, it could be that she’s become so proficient in signing due to the Signing Time videos we got her. Each video has music, visual reinforcement of concepts, and demonstrations of signs from a woman who speaks it fluently. (You can read more about the back story on their site.) Carolyn loves music, and the songs are some of her favorites. We bought one of the music CDs, and sometimes Carolyn will try to sign along with the songs.
One thing about the Signing Time videos is that they teach straight ASL, with no simplification for toddlers. (They’re really meant for pre-schoolers and later, though the company has since come out with a set of Baby Signing Time videos.) That’s something we definitely plan for the next child: to teach regular ASL, and not use the simplified signs from Baby Signs. The child may not get every sign exactly, but they’ll get close and we’ll know what they mean. We see that with Carolyn now, and if you think about it, it’s no surprise that a signer would not do every sign exactly as the manual shows it. Do those of us who speak say every word, and construct every sentence, exactly as the rules of our languages dictate? I think not.
We will, however, use the approach from Baby Signs: start with needs, demonstrate signs as we say the corresponding word, and be patient. And we’ll probably start early, like we did with Carolyn. If she’s still signing when the baby arrives, then it’ll be exposed to signs even younger than was Carolyn.
Something to point out is that neither Kat nor I knew any signing when we started. We’ve learned with Carolyn, and thanks to the videos, I think she knows a few more signs than we do. So even if you don’t know signing now, that’s no barrier to trying this. At the outset, it will be simple enough that you’ll have no trouble remembering the signs you’re teaching. After that, if the signing takes off, you should easily be able to keep up with new signs.
The other thing is that you’ll probably have quite a few friends, relatives, and such ask you if you’re doing the right thing, or why you’re wasting your time. If you know a speech therapist, you may have to be prepared for dismissiveness of, or even outright hostility to, what you’re doing. If you’re going to be easily discouraged by that sort of thing, it might be better not to start at all. The first few weeks or months of effort will be discouraging enough, as your baby will likely just look at you with a puzzled expression when you sign. (Of course, most babies that age are puzzled by half of what they see, so it’s not like you’ll be alone.) Babies, like most of us, crave routine and are bothered by inconsistency. If you’re going to start, you have to stick with it.
Obviously, I can’t guarantee that every child will take to signing as well as Carolyn did, or even that they’ll take to it at all. Some parents I’ve talked to said they tried signing, but their kid started talking at ten months so there was no need for signs. Others have said their kids just never showed much interest in signs—including, astonishingly enough, some deaf children. But I can say that signing can very definitely work, and work well. We’ve been talking with (as opposed to talking to) Carolyn for a year now. Had we not used the signs and her speech had developed at the same rate, we’d just now be starting to talk with her, and only in very limited ways.
I hope this little glimpse of my experience will be a help to some of you out there.