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Monday, May 5, 2014

Signing as a Second Language

The boys are feeling better, though their noses are still like leaky faucets! Henry has eaten pretty well the past couple of days so that feels like an improvement. I'll give more of a wellness update later in the week after we get through the appointments that were rescheduled from last week.

The one appointment that we were able to keep last week was a meeting with our case worker from Golden Gate Regional Center. She came to do Calvin's yearly eval and to talk to me about finally setting him up with speech therapy. So I'm happy to say that we're very close to getting him set up with a therapy play group.

In the meantime, Calvin is starting to say more words! It's hard to understand him, but he's definitely talking. Some of his new words are help, splash, tiger, and bubbles. And he's improving on how he says some of the words he was already using like light. We're starting to hear beginning and ending consonants with that one so it sounds more like "yight" instead of just sounding like "I."

He's combining these new words with his signs to communicate. His doctors (and case workers and everybody else) are always impressed with how well he communicates using sign language. We're super proud of him and, as I've said before, super thankful that it has worked so well for us. The docs (and others) always ask, How did Calvin learn sign language? Well, his dad and I taught him. Then they ask, How did you learn it? And the answer is that we started with a baby sign class and then went kind of DIY from there.

We wanted to go beyond the typical small repertoire of baby signs (milk, more, food, help, etc.) and really try to equip Calvin with enough words to communicate not just his needs, but - to some extent, still limited - his thoughts and ideas. Last I counted (I actually keep a list!), Calvin knows and uses 112 signs. He can combine them into two or three word sentences. This is comparable to the spoken vocabulary of a typically developing 24-month-old.

If you're interested in signing with your child, here are the things we did (and still do!) to learn signs ourselves to be able to teach them to Calvin. It feels like I'm learning ASL as a second language, and for Calvin it's really his first language!

1. Take a class.
If you're near San Francisco, Touch Blue Sky does classes at different locations in and around the Bay Area. We took the one called Playgroup Zoom when Calvin was 6 months old at Natural Resources and we loved Bill White, the instructor. He really inspired me to take sign language seriously. Wherever you are, check out parenting resource organizations to find a class. My Smart Hands is another organization that I like and they offer classes all around the US and Canada.

2. Get an app.
Speaking of My Smart Hands, their app is another nice way to get started. We eventually outgrew the app and needed more words than the app had in it's dictionary, but it was plenty of signs for us in the beginning. There are other apps out there so definitely shop around and read the reviews. It was nice to be able to just grab my phone and look up a word when I found myself talking to Calvin about something I didn't know the sign for.

3. Use a book.
Also from Laura Berg of My Smart Hands, we have The Baby Signing Bible. It has lots of great info about using sign language with little ones and it's another easy way to look up words on the fly. Again, there's other books so shop around, but this is the one I can vouch for :)

4. Google it.
This is what I do most of the time. But I have a specific ASL website that I look for in the search results. Signing Savvy has a pretty extensive dictionary and simple, clear videos. The catch is that unless you have a subscription, their search feature is kind of a drag. You type in a word and it takes you to the entire list of words starting with the same letter, so you have to scroll (or ctrl+f) for the one you wanted. I find it easier to Google "ASL" and whatever word I was looking for, then click on the Signing Savvy search result. Or you could add "Signing Savvy" to your search terms. We should probably just pay for a membership and support them, but we haven't yet. ASL Pro also seems to be a good one. They have a very extensive dictionary.

5. Watch videos.
Laura Berg of My Smart Hands has some videos on YouTube with her own kids, and Baby Einstein also has a baby signs video on YouTube. I've heard good things about the Baby Signing Time series, but never used it myself.

6. Learn from friends. 
Friends who had kids before us set the example of what it looks like to sign with your baby. I feel lucky to have other parent friends who also use sign language with their kids because it means we can learn from each other and also communicate with each others' kids a little more easily. (Mainly it means Calvin can communicate with them more easily.)


No, I'm not being sponsored by any of those organizations, I've just used their resources and it's been helpful. Here are a few other tips from my personal experience signing with Calvin that might be useful for other parents getting started with signing :)

5 Tips for Signing with Babies or Toddlers

1. Say the word and do the sign together.
I remember being in baby sign class and asking "Um, how do I teach it to him??" And the answer is to simply model the signs. When you say milk, open and close your hand. When you say food, put your fingers to your lips. You don't have to say anything extra. It's the same way they learn to talk, they observe and learn to imitate. They will likely learn the sign first, then start saying the word with it and eventually they'll drop the sign and just say it. You don't have to differentiate between signing and talking.

2. Don't sign "cow" unless there's a cow in the room.
Hee hee. That is a direct quote from Bill White, who taught the baby sign class we took. It means that context is important for building meaning. This is important for teaching new signs. Once your child knows a sign, of course you can refer to things that aren't actually there. Like when Calvin signs the names of the animals he wants to see or expects to see at the zoo, before we are actually there.

3. If it's close, it counts.
A friend with an older kid told me that if the baby does something that looks similar to a sign you've shown him, assume he was using the sign even if you're not sure. So if Calvin was kind of opening and closing his hand, I'd be like "Milk? Oh here's your bottle." And give him the bottle. It reinforces that when he does that action, it has this meaning.

4. Start with a class, then add words as needed.
Starting out with a class is nice because the teacher can help you understand the how and why behind signing with kids. It will also give you a solid repertoire of signs to start with. Eventually, you may find yourself wanting to teach your kid more words beyond what you learned in the class, so then you can turn to one of those other resources I mentioned.

Context is important, so teach signs for things your child is interested in, things you want them to learn about, and things they see around them. Around Christmas, Calvin was learning signs quickly so I excitedly taught him Jesus, Christmas, star, the names for all the animals in the manger, and also Santa, presents, stockings, and reindeer :) Calvin loves animals, so many many of the signs he knows are names of animals. He also knows signs for his favorite foods and toys.

5. Their signs may not look like your signs, so pay attention!
Baby motor skills are wobbly still developing, as is their sense of where their body is in space. So if they do some weird hand thing every time they see a cat, even if it barely resembles the actual ASL sign for cat, that is probably what they were going for.

For example, the signs for pig and frog are supposed to be done with your hand under your chin. Well, Calvin apparently can't find his chin (can't blame him, he barely has a chin!), so he does those signs on his opposite wrist. Weird. Whatever. He knows what he's saying and I know what he's saying.

Keep modeling the signs correctly yourself to reinforce the correct way of doing it, and eventually they will find their chin. Or start talking. Whichever comes first ;) I think making an effort to teach the signs correctly shows respect for ASL as a real language used by many people. Also, I don't want to accidentally say a swear word in ASL in public by doing a sign the way my kid does it!


I hope this post is helpful! I'm not an expert, I never studied any of this formally, but I'm a busy mama with a speech-delayed kid and our family has had a lot of success with sign language. Please add tips and resources if you have any to share!

1 comment:

  1. great informative post, dee! we always appreciate the updates! so proud of Calvin and y'all!