BABIES NEED TO COMMUNICATE
The satisfaction of physical needs provides the main incentive: for example to tell you when they are hungry, tired, cold, hot etc. (The signs for all these needs are in the TinyTalk Signing Pack). This is also why they make such rapid progress in doing so. However any good parent or carer knows that a young child derives enormous pleasure “in suiting his actions to other people’s words: “Hands up high! Clap hands! Fetch Teddy!” (James Britton, 1986).
BABIES LOVE COMMUNICATING
There is also immense pleasure for children in the process of using their hands and making noises with their mouths such as ‘raspberries’! Lastly, “the realisation that ‘everything has a name’” (Britton, 1986). “The discovery that ‘everything has a name’ represents the discovery as to ‘what language is all about’”.
SIGN LANGUAGE DOESN'T REPLACE SPOKEN LANGUAGE...
However “eagerness and enthusiasm to talk do not originate in a mere desire for learning or using names; they mark the desire for the detection and conquest of an objective world” (Cassirer, 1944). Using sign language will not hinder a child’s desire to speak. Introducing sign language in fact ‘whets’ their appetite for greater communication. “ASL [or BSL (sic.)] in no way delays or interferes with the normal acquisition of English. Young hearing children who know ASL [or BSL (sic.)]… have an increased facility with English and a larger vocabulary than their counterparts who did not know sign. These significant vocabulary gains remain with them” (Daniels, 20 1).
...IN FACT, IT BOOSTS SPOKEN LANGUAGE
“Competence in one language appears to facilitate language skill and competence in the other and the use of the two languages seems to heighten awareness of language per se” (Gregory, Smith and Wells, 1997).
Responding appropriately to children’s noises and ‘proto-words’ and encouraging their vocal utterances is important (all detailed in the TinyTalk Signing Pack!)
MAKE IT FUN
Keeping language ‘child-centred’ (related to the child’s interests or what they are playing with at the time) will keep it very relevant to their interests which will aid their learning (Denham and Denham, 1991): keeping children “the locus of control” (Wood, 1986). By copying or responding to their utterances also leads to ‘turn-taking’ which is the precursor to natural conversation development.
SIGNING DEVELOPS INTELLIGENCE
As said before, first signs require developed fine motor skills and the beginning of vocabulary understanding. This includes the skill of ‘attention switching’ from seeing a sign to seeing the object (and hearing the word) and realising that they are all connected. This creates ‘joint attention’ (Bakeman and Adamson, 1984). It leads to ‘the triangle of referencing’ (Webster and Wood, 1986) which is when they can see the sign or hear the word which relates to their actions and then see the object or the action. “Simultaneously presenting words visually, kinaesthetically, and orally enhances a child’s language development” (Daniels, 20 1).
First signs and first words are always best corrected through indirect improvement.
Rather than saying something is wrong, it should always be highlighted that you are pleased with their attempts. Try to correct them through your response with the correct word and showing the correct handshape. For example, saying, “Yes, that’s right! It is a duck!” (and making sure that they can focus on your mouth patterns and your hand shape). This is called ‘re-casting’ . You can also extend the meaning of the original phrase helping the conversation to flow (Nelson et al., 1993). “That’s right! It is bath time. Let’s put the water in and find your duck!” It must be remembered that pointing, for example, should not be regarded as a first sign. Meaningful signs can be interpreted when the child makes a referential gesture, such as referring to an object with its action and in context (Caselli, 1983).
The average signing baby’s first sign is at 8.5 months (with 10 signs at 13.2 months). The average non-signing baby shows understanding of 10 words at 15.1 months (Bonvillian, Orlansky and Novak, 1983) with the first understandable spoken words considerably later, between 12 to 18 months. The sooner you start with your baby the better as it takes time for both you and your baby to learn what to do and understand it!
Daniels (2001) found very similar results: “The subjects’ acquisition of sign language vocabulary was clearly accelerated when compared with established norms for spoken language development. The children used their first recognizable sign at an average age of 8 1/2 months, had mastered a ten-sign vocabulary at a mean age of 13 months, and began to combine signs at 17 months. The comparable mean ages for spoken language development are 12 months for the first word, 15 months for ten-word vocabulary, and 21 months for combining of words.”
Signing development progresses a little more slowly when babies discover mobility. As they learn to crawl (at about 10 months) their development of signs is of less priority. Often they return to signs with meaningful referential gestures.
As language development progresses, children learn through over-generalising rules in both speech and sign acquisition (Bellugi and Klima, 1972). An example is ‘goed’ instead of ‘went’. This also applies to signs used with the wrong handshape or position. Again, correction should be positive, giving the correct word in your response. As words and signs are learnt they begin to be combined, such as from ‘duck’ to ‘duck, where?’ and ‘Daddy’ to ‘Daddy sit’. These ‘two word utterances’ eventually lead to three and more, then use of adjectives, pronouns, possessives, negatives, contractions… and on and on! Your child has a language with which to understand you and with which to make itself understood.
Signs naturally fall away when children realise that they can orally give you a message whilst still playing with their toys! However children continue to use signs when they are tired or when they want to emphasise their message. Signs are also a lovely way to make a child still feel important when a younger sibling comes along. They also increase the communication and the bond between them. Signs have also proved to be very beneficial to the very many young children diagnosed with ‘glue ear’, a middle ear infection related to colds and throat infections. This results in a temporary mild to moderate hearing loss which can recur. This is often unrecognised for very long periods of time and can lead to many children having communication and behavioural difficulties. However babies that have learnt to sign continue to still understand their parents and carers, still get their message across and display greatly reduced levels of frustration and anti-social behaviour. Yet again- thumbs up for baby sign language!
Interestingly, the very word ‘infant’ means ‘non-speaking’. “There is much to suggest that the acquisition of language marks an absolute and qualitative development in human nature” (Sacks, 1990).
The quality of the child’s input and interaction are crucial factors affecting language acquisition.
TinyTalk knows that baby sign language has a very important part to play in the acquisition of language, both understood and expressed. In so doing, the communication and behavioural skills of pre-schoolers are also significantly raised, helping every child to have the very best start in life.