The Power of Language

When we lived in North Carolina I met a woman who did sign language with her baby. Ten years ago, it seemed like a fringe baby communication technique. I was pretty impressed anyway, not only with the mom’s thoughtfulness but also with the baby’s ability to communicate. I told Stephen about it then and suggested we give it a try when we had a kid.

Before Eli was born, I bought the standard Joseph Garcia work Sign with Your Baby. We worked and worked with Eli until finally, not knowing he was trying to communicate with us, we gave up. We didn’t think he was responding or trying to duplicate the signs we were making. A few weeks later, a child care worker at church asked us if we’d been doing signs with him. Apparently, she was able to recognize the loose signs Eli was making and call them what they were: his attempt to talk to us. We renewed our efforts and were rewarded with a dozen signs during his pre-verbal and early verbal days.

I can’t tell you the amount of frustration his ability to sign cut down. Many times when he was tired, a sign would ease the way to compromise. We didn’t do the endless pointing and asking, “Is this what you want? No? How about this?” And it gave him some power. Even without vocalized words he could still let us know what he needed. We also got an excellent start on good manners. To this day, he will still sometimes make the sign for ‘please’ when he says it out loud. I was continually amazed at him making signs for stuff and me for understanding what he wanted.

I’ve often wondered if sign language is the reason he talked so early and so well. Of course, there’s no way to verify that. Many times I’ve had people approach me and comment on how articulate and well mannered he is. I think it was the sign language.

So, of course, we’re signing with Liza. I have a different book this time, it’s Signing Smart with Babies and Toddlers. My sister-in-law, Joy, recommended it and I find it to be better than the Garcia book. The new book said to start earlier and be ready to see very loose signs at first. It also suggested to do two groups of signs. “See a Lot/Do a Lot” signs are things like ‘bath,’ ‘milk,’ ‘where,’ and a made-up sign for Eli. “Highly Motivating” signs are things she likes: ‘Eli’ again, ‘water,’ ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ These two groups of signs are a much better system, I can already tell. Also, knowing what to look for is very, very helpful.

Liza has made the signs for bath, milk, and water. Right now she is only doing them in response to us doing them. I haven’t yet seen her make them on her own as a request, but I’m sure that day is right around the corner. I never thought I’d be communicating with my five month old. It is awe-inspiring and proves the drive we have to communicate, even from birth.

10 thoughts on “The Power of Language

  1. In summer of 2006 I ended up on a roadtrip with two good friends and the 8-month-old daughter of one of them. We were in a foreign country, jet lag was present, we were in a car a lot, and little Natalie was an excellent companion. It may be that she is just that chill on road trips in general, but I ascribed much of the goodness to sign language, which she used a LOT at the time. She barely ever got frustrated – by inability to communicate anyway. Heat and other exigencies did do their thing a bit. 🙂

    Yaaaay baby sign. I can’t wait to try it with my kid (whenever that happens).

  2. Hey, to me this is half the fun of having a baby! I had the idea to use sign langauge with babies years ago, so it kind of annoys me that it’s such a big fad now–like being a Beatles fan before they were famous. 🙂

    Thanks for the book recommendation, I will definitely check it out. I might be able to dig up some research for you on baby sign and early language acquisition. (The other half the fun is having my own little research subject!)

    Is Joy the one that teaches Kindermusik? What’s your thought on that?

  3. There’s actually quite a bit of info in the Signing Smart book about how ASL increases toddler’s vocabularies and even teaching it to older kids gain them better reading scores in early elementary school.

    The question I’ve gotten asked a lot is does it make them not talk and instead rely on the signs to make their point? And the answer seems to be: No, No and No. It actually makes them talk sooner and they use the sign to emphasize their point. Just like an adult who talks with their hands, who would have thought?

    Joyous, Yes, Joy teaches Kindermusik. I would highly recommend it. There are classes starting from birth and even a sign and sing class. The link above on Joy’s name is her Kindermusik blog and she talks there about the benefits of Kindermusik. It pretty much does everything but cure cancer, and they’re working on solving that one too. I know you know about the benefits of music on kids and/or playing an instrument, cause you are a singer and a linguist. Kindermusik is a great environment to foster that.

  4. “The question I’ve gotten asked a lot is does it make them not talk and instead rely on the signs to make their point?”

    I get this question a lot about foreign languages–won’t it confuse them so they don’t learn English properly? And the answer, again, is no. The evidence seems to indicate that ANY language exposure at all is good for babies, who simply need to pick up the concept of language.

    There are a few different outcomes that have been discovered: 1) the kid mixes foreign words into English for a bit, until they get the paradigm straightened out–but they do, and there’s so much English exposure outside the home that it doesn’t matter; 2) the kid speaks one language to one parent and English to the other; 3) the kid is slightly speech delayed, but then suddenly starts speaking in complete sentences–they seem to skip over the in between stage, indicating that the silence wasn’t a handicap, it was simply the kid thinking it over until they knew what they wanted to say. Nerve-wracking, I bet, but not detrimental to development.

  5. I now have an intense desire to be home so I could come and see her sign.

    Misty, now you know a weak point for when I get back onto town on the 6th… 😉

  6. Joyous, ASL acts as just another foreign language with the benefit of providing the kid with some communication tools before they can speak. It’s pretty amazing to watch. I can’t wait for you to practice on your own little research subject!

  7. I’ve also read research that indicates that teaching sign actually increases the child’s vocabulary. The explanation was that since language acquisition is a result of hearing people speak, and if a child makes a sign, the parent has yet another thing to pounce on to speak more, as opposed to just trying to have a running conversation.

    For example, a child may make the sign for a bird. Then the parent can jump in with comments about the bird’s color, shape, even the name. But until the child indicated interest in the bird in the first place, the parent may not even have noticed it to discuss it.

    I thought that was an interesting concept, really.

    We haven’t had any complaints with Garcia’s book, but I will check out the one you suggested, too.

  8. sign language is also good for kids with autism and i use it on a daily bases. i know a lot of ASL and if you would like to know some basic words let me know.

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