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Signing On

Last week I polled you all on sign language: do you use it? How often?
If not, why not?

Interestingly enough, 80% of respondents
answered unanimously – you’ve taught a few key signs, but don’t knock
yourself out to teach baby a whole new language. The other 20% who
answered said they don’t use sign language on purpose, fearing it will
slow down speech development.

Brian and I spoke about teaching
Madeleine sign language before she was born. It seemed like an ideal
answer to alleviating a child’s frustration at her inability to
communicate effectively. As we asked around, we met people who swore by
it, and people who mentioned their concern that learning to sign would
delay speech; after all, why struggle to talk when you can already make
your needs known? 

After seeing it in action with our friends Matt and Sandra, though, we
decided we’d give signing a go. Borrowing a book on it from our
friends, Brian and I sat down and taught ourselves a few key signs.
We’ve made the conscious decision not to teach her “every” word in sign
language – no need to teach her, say, airplane or rock when she can
simply point at them. But we chose words we thought would be difficult
to express pre-verbally in any other way. There are several books out
there on the subject; we saw no need to invest in a DVD or sign language
class. You don’t even really need a baby signing book, just a basic
American Sign Language (ASL) dictionary will do, and there are several
good baby signing websites just a Google stop away.

We introduced
one or two words at a time starting around 7 or 8 months, and have made
sure to sign and say the word simultaneously. Words she can sign or is
working on include: more, finished, eat, milk, help, cold, hot, potty,
please, and thank you. Most of those words have helped her make her
wants and needs known more clearly, and “please” and “thank you” have
simply started training her to have good manners. She's passing those
manners on, too: her friend Naomi has started signing "thank you"
because of Maddie, much to the joy of her parents.

I think that’s
the extent of signs we’ll be using. I’ve not seen studies showing sign
language to be a contributor to delayed verbalizing, but I’ve heard
about them in a nebulous way. I’m not concerned since she’s such a
chatty Cathy and seems to be fine with language skills; I’m mostly just
lazy and don’t want to have to learn too many signs myself.

language has certainly come in handy, though, and I highly recommend it.
Having a child who can sign “more milk” or “more to eat” or “cold”
makes guessing her needs much less difficult, and seems to give her a
lot of satisfaction at her ability to communicate with us. I can say,
“What do you want, Maddie?” and she can tell me, “milk,” or “more to
eat,” and everyone’s happy. And when she’s had enough to eat and wants
down from her chair, is peopled out and ready to leave the playground,
or is finished swinging, she’ll sign “finished” and know I understand
and will help out.

Signing also comes in handy for a kid whose
parent isn’t really paying attention. The other night I was putting
Maddie to bed, and we’d hit the last stop on our routine; our sole
nursing of the day. It’s a time I look forward to, partly for the
cuddle factor and partly because it’s the only time I get to read my
books anymore. In fact, sometimes Maddie nurses briefly and then simply
lies there smiling at me, enjoying the snuggle before going down for the

So we’d just settled in and I was diving into the final
chapter of a very exciting book. Maddie nursed very briefly – maybe 30
seconds – and then simply lay there. I assumed she wanted a snuggle,
and truthfully, I really wanted to finish that chapter. A couple more
paragraphs, though, and I felt a little tap on my arm. I looked down at
my daughter, who smiled at me with (what I imagined was) strained
patience, then said to me, “Mama – night night!” while simultaneously
making the finished sign.

I couldn’t pretend not to understand
such clear communication. The end of the chapter had to wait.

be careful teaching your kids to communicate too well.


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