If you have children, you will remember the time when you were juggling your new role as a parent with 1,001 things to worry about, amidst handling sleeplessness, wails, poo, pee and vomit.
One of the frustrations I had with my first child was not knowing what he needed when he cried and screamed incessantly. This was when a friend recommended a children’s sign language DVD programme.
“Sign language is for… the Deaf, right?” went through my mind but I agreed to check it out anyway.
I later found out that I was only half right.
My son enjoyed the signing program right from the start. In fact, my husband and I did so tremendously as well! The program was filled with catchy songs, colourful visuals, gestures and actions that in no time, we were all happily signing milk, juice, diaper, happy, sad, hurt, colours, and lots more words which hold meaning for an infant’s daily life.
It turned out that sign language is not just for the Deaf.
Undoubtedly, it is dominantly used by the Deaf community around the world yet it is a real language that can be taught to children as young as 6 months old to give them a “voice” when they previously had no way to express themselves. In other words, babies and toddlers can learn to communicate through sign language before they can talk!
By the time my son turned two, he had such a wide vocabulary, and could communicate so well for his age, that many of our friends, particularly those who were parents, commended him on it. I wanted to take all the credit for it of course (well, I did spend many happy hours reading and talking to him even whilst changing his diapers and creaming his bottom!). But anecdotal evidence from friends with kids who had learned signing, suggested that their children seemed to be ahead of their peers, in terms of communication, too.
I was curious enough to find out more.
Does signing help hearing children communicate better?
Children have the capacity to understand, learn and communicate before they develop the ability to speak. Babies can sign at around 6 to 14 months, which is generally before they learn to speak clearly. Signing can be another way for them to express themselves, and could reduce their frustration at not being understood, and often tantrums that result from that.
Children learn in different ways. Some learn better by hearing, some by seeing, some by doing stuff with their own hands. Signing could be particularly useful for tactile and kinesthetic learners.
In particular, signing can have amazing results with children who have speech and communication challenges. It is increasingly being used for children with Down Syndrome, Autism, Apraxia of Speech, and speech delays, with very positive results.
Research by Drs Acredolo and Goodwyn suggests that hearing children who had signed using gestures as babies scored 12 points higher in IQ tests compared to a control group who did not use gestures for communication. Signing with hearing children may also improve their confidence, encourage an interest in books, and also support their spelling and reading skills.
Will signing delay a child’s speech?
Parents that sign with their children frequently confirm that their children tend to speak earlier than those who are not exposed to signing. This is because signing helps them to associate a physical movement with the corresponding concept and the vocalization or sound of a spoken word.
Parents get excited when their baby communicate by waving goodbye or by extending a flying kiss to them. They would not worry about the child not learning to say ‘goodbye’ or ‘I love you’ eventually. These kinds of gestures are just like signs, and by introducing sign language, can take communication to a whole new level.
Some parents may claim that signing with their baby delayed his or her speech. It is just as likely that the child would have had a speech delay anyway – with or without signing. There are many children who will experience delayed speech, who don’t ever sign. If a child does have delayed speech, signing for communication is better than no communication.
We did not set out to try to improve our child’s communication skills when we first introduced him to signing. It was really just to let him have an enjoyable, age-appropriate programme to watch. But it worked out to be so much more than that for us – it was a fun programme for parents as well, and gave us a shared experience with our son, that helped him to communicate better, and taught us a useful second language (or should we say, third language?).
If you are keen to try it out, the programme we used was Signing Time from the U.S, and you can buy the DVDs locally online at www.toyshop.hk.