Sign language can be taught to babies from birth – surprising, but true.
In a bid to delve deeper into this fascinating subject, Kidadl interviewed some of the key experts in this field to discover how. "Much like a hearing child would begin to acquire language from the moment they're born by listening to sounds around them, deaf children also begin to learn sign language by observing," director of B.S.L Training, and parent, Andrew Belcher, told us.
"Hand-eye coordination development makes responding in sign language challenging, but research often notes that deaf children can recognise many signs before being able to produce the signs themselves.
"In addition, deaf children ‘babble’ via sign language like a hearing child would vocally. These ‘babbles’ are hand movements which aren't perfectly formed signs, but attempts to sign, and can become recognised signs as early as eight or nine months old, which is why baby sign classes are so popular. The vocal cords, and the ability to pronounce words, don't develop until later so using signs can aid communication for both the child and adult."
Hearing and deaf babies acquire words and signs at the same age milestones. You can expect your baby to have learnt their first sign by 12 months, 70 signs by 18 months and by age three, a toddler will have learnt about 500 signs.
At nine months old, Andrew's first child with wife and business partner Karen, started signing 'light' referring to the light being switched on and off. Their second-born began even earlier at seven months, signing 'drink'.
Keeping sign language relevant to everyday life and ideas young babies will understand is one of the tips linguist Kate Rowley, from UCL's Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre, shared with us for parents wanting to do sign language for babies. Exposure is how babies learn signs.
She explained: "For example, you would sign 'milk', point to the bottle and they would acquire the sign by seeing it demonstrated and they'd learn to associate that sign with a particular concept.
"One key thing linked to sign language that's extremely important is maintaining eye contact. This is absolutely vital. In deaf families they usually spend a lot of time establishing eye contact as the first step, so making sure the baby is looking at them, using exaggerated facial expressions and pointing to make the baby understand that if they want any information, they must look at the person.
"Most hearing parents are quite frightened about signing with their child because it’s not their first language and maybe the first time they’ve met a deaf person is their own baby, so for me, it's more important to do what you would do normally like playing, tickling, pulling faces, smiling, teach the infant about turn-taking [a crucial principle in sign language communication] and establish eye-contact. Try to use the tools you already have rather than worry about how many signs you know."
No matter what your reasons are for wanting to teach your baby sign language, both Andrew and Kate as well as dad-of-two and theatremaker Jonny Cotsen, have shared these golden nuggets of advice with us, for you, which can be adapted to suit the age of your infant.
Think Key Concepts
Gestures, facial expression, and body posture are used in sign language to convey mood and emotions. A great way to practise these principles is with storytelling, role play and visual games/ toys, so think character-based play, charades, puzzles, Lego and building games, dolls and lots of interaction.
Jonny Cotsen taught his hearing children to sign as early as possible. Speaking about his eldest child, now three, he said: "When she was one-year-old, I knew exactly when Tilly was hungry, tired, wanted to play or needed the toilet because I constantly did it with her. However, the biggest problem I had – as she's hearing – and as soon as she spoke, it was difficult to keep up with the signing because she was happy to speak. But all the signs I did with her, she knows really well. It became quite normal for her to sign and speak.
"The other things I did with Tilly is read lots of deaf children's books. I wanted her to understand she has a dad who is like everyone else, but he can't hear. I wanted her to understand my culture and identity. I did this when she was about one-year-old and I still read them to her. There's lots of good deaf literature out there." To get you started, click back on these great resources for signed stories and must-read children's books with deaf characters, some of which have BSL dictionaries with them too.
Try signing a colour and have your child find, or point out, an object of that colour. BSL tutor Andrew said: "Parents could teach the sign of the object brought back or if the sign isn't known, the family could research the sign. The same matching game could be played with BSL numbers to create 'Number Bingo'."
"Make sure you try to involve the deaf child in everything. It’s quite easy for adults to have a conversation about something, perhaps the night before or in the morning at breakfast time, such as plans for the day, and then set off doing the activities. A deaf child would have missed these interactions and are likely to follow, without really knowing what's going on. Regardless of the child’s age, make sure they're informed of what’s next," Andrew added.
Use Deaf Tutors
Baby sign language classes taught by hearing teachers are quite political and controversial.
Kate said: "Hearing babies are being encouraged to sign, but many parents are advised not to sign with deaf babies because it’s seen as detrimental to their acquisition of English. If a deaf baby acquires sign language, they have the ability to acquire a second language, being English."
The advice is to use a deaf teacher or get input from the deaf community, either in person or online. Your baby will learn much quicker too.
She added: "Sign language has strong links to the deaf experience, so we feel teaching it should be the responsibility of those who know the language themselves. Baby sign classes in the UK, some actually use American Sign Language (ASL) not British Sign Language, but these are two completely different languages."
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