This morning, my 17 month old daughter signed ‘goldfish’ to me. Not only did she sign it, she said it too – well, the ‘gold’ part at any rate. As usual (and as most mothers can relate) I was busy getting ready for the day and had given her a book to keep her occupied while I got dressed. It happened to be ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?‘, an American children’s classic that isn’t very well known here in the UK, but which I love, and Lucy loves too. It’s been our bedtime book for awhile, which is why it was upstairs next to the bed, and handy. And since we’ve been going to baby sign classes with TinyTalk since she was 6 months old, we’re avid baby signers as well. The book, with its repetitive structure and clear pictures is perfect for young children who are learning animals and colours, and is also easy to do the signs for.
But I digress. The whole point of telling you this is that she signed and said ‘goldfish’ this morning!
**WARNING!** This post is about to descend into annoying-parent-isn’t-my-child-great mode. But if you can bear with me, I do have a point to make with all this boasting…
Baby signing is something that I wanted to try with my children for several reasons – I loved the idea of being able to communicate with them before they could talk, I’ve seen how well it works for some other parents, and I’ve been toying with the idea of learning sign language myself for some time. I found that TinyTalk classes suit us well – as well as signing, they’re full of singing and playtime, which is great for the babies but also a great time to meet other mums of a similar disposition.
Despite loving the classes, by Christmas last year I was getting frustrated, as we had been going to classes for more than 6 months, as we still only had about 5 signs – milk, more, Mummy, Daddy etc. Then about Christmas time, I asked Lucy if she wanted to go have her bath after dinner – and she signed ‘bath’. I hadn’t signed that to her for several weeks, and had become a bit lax myself in signing as I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with it. Little did I know what was to come. We had a signing explosion, starting with about 5 new ones a week, and growing from there. I will admit that I got more than a little excited over her skills and started learning more and using more signs myself. (Any teacher will tell you that the best (and sometimes only!) reward in their job is seeing their students learn and master a new skill. That’s a heady feeling when it’s your own child, too!) We now have over 60 signs (yes, 6-0) and we’re still going strong. And they’ve now started to translate into words. We’ve all but dropped the ‘cow’ sign because it’s become ‘Moo!’ ‘Milk’ is still the favourite, and very useful in the middle of the night when we don’t want to wake Daddy up but we want a feed. But today I think was the first time she signed a compound word – goldfish is literally ‘gold‘ and then ‘fish‘. And then she combined a first sign with a first word – can you say sign ‘proud mummy‘ boys and girls?? 😀
There are lots of people who say that signing isn’t good for kids as it will delay speech and interfere with the natural processes of learning language. As a teacher, I tended to be skeptical of these claims anyway, but that really has not been our experience. Lucy had made the connection between the sign, the word and the abstract concept before she started to speak. One of her favourite songs is ‘Eensy Weensy Spider’ (or Itsy Bitsy Spider if you live in North America!), and one of the signs used is ‘sun’. In a recent crochet frenzy, I made her a weather mobile to go in the playroom:
I hung it up one night, and the very next morning she looked at it hung on the window and signed ‘sun’. Making the connection between the abstract and concrete is one of the essential tools for good communication (for example, knowing that an actual cat, a picture of cat, and the word ‘cat’ all mean the same thing), and it’s something that lots of kids don’t link up until after they start speaking. Lucy did it a month or so before she started saying words, which means she’s got a head start on good communication.
And it’s not just me that thinks so. Schools in the Orkney Islands have recognised that teaching sign in class helps communication not only with students with learning difficulties, but also those learning to read and write. Studies have shown that children who learned to sign as babies have an increased vocabulary by the time they are school age, and may also have increased IQ scores. But I think the best benefit is illustrated by Lucy herself. One day in January I tossed her up in the air, and when she came down, she signed ‘fun’. What’s better than that??