I know there’s an ongoing debate about whether or not to teach kids sign language before they learn to talk. I’m definitely an advocate, and thought I’d share our story. We didn’t do anything “fancy” and didn’t have set teaching times. I checked out one book from the library, but I don’t even remember what it was anymore, and, quite frankly, barely even looked at it. Most of our education came through the wonderful Baby Einstein signing DVDs. We started with Baby Wordsworth, which teaches 30 vocabulary words for things around the house in both spoken and signed language. We later added My First Signs when it was released. It teaches 20 common first vocabulary words in both spoken and signed language. Both feature Marlee Matlin, colorful puppets, lively music and entertaining story skits. They also include wonderful bonus feature tracks that extend the teaching and let you interact a little more. The bonus features also teach some additional/advanced vocabulary words not included in the main video.
Jenna watches a movie while she’s on her feeding pump each morning for one hour. This was an easy way for us to incorporate teaching. We started when she was about 9 months old. We watched with her, and learned at the same time she did. Jenna was completely engrossed. We were basically hoping to teach a few “essential” words like “more,” “hot,” “cold,” “drink,” “blanket,” and “all-done.” We were truly amazed at how Jenna took off with learning. Often, I would realize that she was signing something and would have to re-watch the video to figure out what it was. It wasn’t long until she was signing every word from both videos, and teaching US some that we hadn’t picked up on. It made communication so much easier and, I think, eliminated potential melt-down and tantrum situations. It’s hard to know how she would have handled frustration about not being able to communicate with us, since we don’t have a “non-sign-language Jenna” to compare to, but I feel fairly certain that we would have had a lot more problems as a result of failure to communicate without signing.
I think all parents realize very early on that their kids are understanding language LONG before they’re speaking it. From my child development studies, I also know that kids have the motor ability to sign before they have the ability to speak. Without sign language, parents and children have a tendency to resort to gestures and pointing anyway. Sign language just seems like a natural extension of that desire to communicate.
I think it’s important to make the learning fun, no matter whether you use DVDs like these, or some other method of teaching. Jenna also “modified” many of the signs to be her own version of what we saw. Most kids will tend to have their own “style” and method for different signs. Just like with spoken language, the important thing is that you understand what they’re trying to tell you.
One of the main arguments against teaching sign language is that it delays spoken speech. I’m not sure what the data is on this, but I can tell you about Jenna. At 18 months, she had a sign language vocabulary of 30-50 words. From there, it seemed like she added new signed words every day. Right around her second birthday, she started speaking more. Amazingly, she was immediately speaking in short (correct) phrases, which quickly evolved into sentences. She had very little problem with pronoun usage and other common trouble spots for toddlers learning to talk. I have another friend who taught her son sign language, and she said that he spoke later than “average,” but, again, had an amazing vocabulary and was almost immediately speaking in (correct) phrases and sentences.
So, if you’re considering teaching your baby sign language, I’d highly recommend it. I also highly recommend the Baby Einstein movies. ( Just make sure that you watch them too!!) It’s so amazing to see your baby’s joy at being able to tell you something, and it’s definitely worth any chance that it might decrease melt-downs and tantrums.