Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sign Language and Children

I’m no expert in sign language, but it’s been a very fun part of parenting for me, and something I’ve thought about writing about on this blog for several weeks. I knew this was the time to write this post when my sister Catherine (who is taking a proper ASL class) sent me a link to this wonderful ASL resource site.

I bought a set of thirteen Signing Time DVDs when Emma was about 9 months old (yes, I violated the “no TV before age 2” rule). I loved the idea of signing with my baby, and I had tried teaching Emma a few signs with no success. I borrowed the first Signing Time DVD (My First Signs) from the library, and within a week Emma could sign “milk”. I borrowed a couple more, and when Emma kept learning new signs I decided to take the plunge and buy the series. I normally stick with library materials, but our library only has one copy of each DVD and there’s always a long wait list – plus the DVDs get scratched after being borrowed by so many different people.

Emma is now nearly three, but she likes to watch the DVDs and is still learning new signs. I’ve lost count of how many signs she knows, but it’s a lot, especially if you count numbers and letters. She spends a lot of time teaching Johnny and her baby doll how to sign. Johnny is more verbal than Emma was at his age, and (maybe because of this?) he signs less, but he knows how to sign “ball” and “Leah” (a girl on the DVDs who Johnny adores), and if Emma has her way he will learn many more signs in the near future.

Emma only spoke a handful of words before her second birthday, but she signed so well that we were able to communicate very effectively. I don’t think signing slowed down her speech. All of Emma’s early spoken words were words she already knew how to sign, and I believe that signing helped her learn her letters and colors. I like that learning how to sign teaches that there are different ways of saying the same thing – an important concept for advanced language development. Sign language also helped Emma express several abstract concepts (hungry, hurt, tired, happy, silly) at a very young age.

I really enjoyed learning alongside Emma – this is one parent-child activity where a parent could easily learn as much (if not more) than their child. And it’s critical for the parent to learn the signs alongside their child. Sitting your child in front of a sign language video is not going to accomplish much if they can’t use their new signs to communicate with anyone. Besides, knowing how to sign is a useful parenting skill. It’s much more pleasant to silently sign “share” to Emma during playdates than to give her a verbal lecture, and it’s fun to sign “I love you” to Daddy through the window each morning as he drives away for work – and to see him signing “I love you” back.

I would like to learn to sign fluently someday, but for now I’m grateful for an easy way to learn several real ASL signs while having fun with my toddlers.

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