I first signed up for a baby sign language class because my daughter Petra and I had Wednesdays free-- her being a winter baby, I aspired to get out of the house every day of the week and registering for classes cemented that commitment. We ended up doing both levels of My Smart Hands in Saskatoon through what is now called Little Hands and Me Parenting Network, and I religiously signed every word I learned during mealtimes, story times, and in regular 'conversation' with my baby girl who, at just before a year, finally signed back. "Moe," she said, repeatedly pointing her index finger at her other palm in an approximation that still makes me grin to recall. Within weeks, it was "doll", "berries", “cracker”, and so many more. The signs helped me to know what her similar-sounding words meant, differentiating "bay" for "bear" and "bay" for "baby". I thought it was convenient. But I couldn't have known back then the impact sign language would have and what more it would bring to our lives.
photos by Nicole Romanoff Photography
Seeing my baby daughter and later, my son absolutely rejoice that I could understand them was nothing short of awesome. At ten months, my son has begun to sign "more", "water", and most important, "potty" and the ability to communicate his needs beyond my reading his cues has given him a sense of independence that makes him proud. Communication and feeling heard is important to me as an adult but I remember being maybe not a baby, but a really young child, and wanting to scream in frustration when I felt ignored, misunderstood, or wasn't able to explain what I meant. By introducing sign language, I've seen firsthand how that frustration can be mitigated.
Like any new spoken word, every sign my daughter mastered was a triumph to her and I both, and as time went on, incorporating new signs (courtesy of Google because she would ask and I had to quickly learn) became a bonding activity that she and I shared. Around two years old, we got some pictorial flash cards and Petra loved to be tested, even helping her doll to sign along. At this point, I was already convinced that it was doing wonders for her brain.
And let's talk about the benefit sign brings to the written language. Unless you've got scissors or are writing with Scrabble tiles, it is really difficult to let letters be independent of a word and yet still part of it. Look at the word "fox". Now help a child sound it out. You might find yourself saying "f says ff", "o says aw", covering the other letters up as you go, but oh man, that's tedious. Or, like in Montessori, you might ditch letter names and only let them be their sound which, although it's clearly a well-endorsed practice, isn't my choice because understanding a letter's various functions is more easily explained when the letter has a name. You can guess where I'm going with this. 😉 Using the ASL (American Sign Language) alphabet, you can take each letter apart by showing a child a letter F and saying "ff", thereby teaching both the letter name and its sound. Taking a word off the page makes for a dynamic reading experience. It’s physically and mentally immersive. Petra was sounding simple words out before three and it is definitely thanks to sign language.
One of the worries people have about signing with their baby is that the verbal part of communication will fall by the wayside, but my kids are only two of many who prove the opposite to be true. In fact, I also use signs alongside French or Spanish words and in that way, the meaning is apparent without discussion.
But I haven’t even mentioned the thing that surprised me most: how beneficial sign has been to me. I’m not a master of the language by any stretch of the imagination but I can FEEL the new pathways that have formed in my brain as words take on a visual meaning alongside the one I’ve always known. It makes me crave to learn more.
If you’re a new parent and haven’t yet considered incorporating sign into your child’s life, now’s your time. Pick up a library book, do a bit of online research, or Google classes in your area. Of course, if you live in Saskatoon like I do, I encourage you to check out Little Hands and Me Parenting Network— Tanya is a patient sweetheart of an instructor and being with other parents every week lights a fire under you to keep up with the curriculum.