My sister is hard of hearing. She has an auditory processing disorder that can’t be tested for until one is old enough to reliably respond to specific tests. My sister, who passed her own early hearing tests, spent most of her childhood being scolded to “just listen” and “pay attention.” It wasn’t until she was an adult, demonstrating the (much improved) hearing test for her own students that her disorder was discovered. Now, she has hearing aids and life is beautiful…but it’s possible that our son has the same disorder.
In order to avoid the same frustration she suffered, we use sign language in addition to our normal speech in our house. Baz is eighteen months old, and at last count has 4 spoken words and roughly 20 signs. They’re not all perfect – he signs “mom” by sticking his pointer finger up his nose, and audibly smacks himself in the face when signing “thank you” – but they have proven worth the effort in our daily life.
You may be thinking, “Only 4 spoken words? Signing is giving him a speech delay!” Remeber that communication is what is important. Right now, my son communicates with his hands, and when the time comes, his speech will follow.1
I picked up some baby sign books and videos and learned what I thought would be the most helpful in the beginning: milk, mom, dad, more, hungry, sleepy, diaper. I started in the hospital. In the early days, I would prop him on the couch (facing me) and I would face the tv and sing the songs while I signed along with the videos. We got his first intentional sign at about 7 months.
A few months later I added a few more. We still sing songs and watch videos – and will ultimately all be fluent. Some signs he uses regularly and without prompting – “help” – and some need reminding – “thank you.” If he wants something, he signs “please” with a fervor that is amusing and heartbreaking, but he’s already learning that simply saying “please” doesn’t always get him what he wants (but sometimes it does).
From time to time I am asked for a list of the best signs to teach. I would like to go on record and say that my opinion is “all of them.” It’s a rich language full of nuance and emotion. You cannot sugar-coat and you cannot double-speak with sign language. For a society that already “talks” with our hands – why not learn how to actually say something?
Sign language also helps families who are trying to raise bilingual children – signs can be used to reinforce that “leche,” “lait,” and “milk” are the same thing simply by adding a simple squeezing motion when you say it.2 As our children become adults, adding “ASL” to “languages spoken” on their resume makes them instantly more marketable – whether they are nurses, lawyers, speech writers, interpreters, or teachers – to name a few.
If, however, you’re simply trying to curb the frustration of the period before speech emerges, you should look at your own lifestyle and choose words that will allow your day to go more smoothly. I have noticed, with our son who wants nothing more than to Do It All Himself, that “help” is the most-used sign in our life. Any time he’s stuck, he only has to catch my eye and sign “help” and I’m there for him. No screaming required.3
Some further reading:
- Rachel Coleman’s Blog – Rachel’s first daughter was born deaf, and her second daughter has spina bifida and cerebral palsy. She and her family created the Signing Time program (linked below.)
- ASL Pro – an online dictionary (with videos)
- Signing Time – a full library of books, dvd, and teaching aids
- LifePrint.com – free self-guided online study at the “American Sign Language University.”