Using Sign Language in a Bilingual Home
I often get asked by families who are using two spoken languages with their baby, “will signing just make things more confusing!?” My answer to this is always a resounding, “absolutely not!” The fact is that signing can actually help your baby make the connection between the two spoken languages, accelerating the learning process and facilitating better communication all around.
Signing: The Bridge Between Spoken Languages
As your baby’s receptive language develops, they begin to associate a spoken word with an object. For example, your baby will learn that the spoken word “cat” means that furry thing that walks around the house and won’t let me touch it. ;)
A bilingual baby will need to learn the cat=that furry thing and also that gato=that furry thing, and then also make the connection that cat and gato have the same meaning.
Enter baby sign language…
When you are signing with your bilingual baby, you can make this process much easier. When you say “cat” in English while signing “cat” in ASL [American Sign Language], and then say “gato” in Spanish while signing “cat” in ASL, you are showing your baby that they mean the same thing, and ultimately speeding up the learning process.
Other Benefits of Signing with Your Bilingual Baby
One of my favorite benefits of signing with bilingual babies is it provides an opportunity to know what your baby understands in both languages. For example, a family that took classes with me shared their amazement when their baby signed “peach” when her grandparents mentioned the word conversationally in Mandarin. Before that moment, they had no idea just how much of her grandparents’ language she was really picking up!
Signing in Action
There are many ways to expose your baby to two spoken languages, but one of the most popular is the OPOL (one parent – one language) method. This is when each parent speaks exclusively to the child in their primary language. For example, mom always speaks Spanish and dad always speaks English.
See How It Works
I was so excited when one of the members of our Tiny Signs Online community shared a video of her bilingual baby signing while listening to her parents speaking to her in both French and English.
In this video, you’ll see how signing facilitates beautiful communication in a bilingual family…
Pretty amazing, right!?
Here are some very cool facts:
Baby Claire [in video] will sign “eat” when…
- asked if she is hungry (in French or English)
- asked if she wants breakfast (in French or English)
- asked if she wants lunch (in French or English)
- asked if she wants supper (in French or English)
This one simple sign allows her parents to really know what she is learning in both languages and how her vocabulary and comprehension is developing – all before she has spoken her first word!
To Wrap Up
If you are planning to use two spoken languages with your baby and have any concerns that signing might confuse things, I hope this puts that worry to rest, once and for all!
Baby sign language is a wonderful tool to enhance communication in your bilingual home!
A huge thank you to Melissa and Roch for allowing me to share their video. Merci beaucoup!
Help Me, Mama!
Many times each day, your baby will need your help with something – they are hungry, tired, wet, uncomfortable or frustrated. Babies usually let us know they need something by vocalizing and even crying. As parents, we want to be responsive to our baby’s needs so that they will be happy and trust that we are there to care for them.
When your baby starts rolling, crawling and exploring their world…that’s when things get interesting! As baby’s interest in the world grows, so do the opportunities for frustration! There are so many things they want to touch, taste and explore – and sometime things don’t go the way they’d like because of their still developing motor skills.
When your baby can’t reach the thing they want, or something they are trying to get their hands on is stuck, they will likely SHRIEK in frustration and to let you know they need your help. When this happens, it is an excellent time to introduce the sign for “help.”
To teach your baby the sign for “help,” ask them “do you need HELP?” And sign “help” as you say the word. Watch the video below to learn how to do the sign correctly. Then help your little one solve the problem and and reinforce the sign again by saying, “mama HELPED (demonstrate the sign again) you, now you have the toy!” Continue to model the sign whenever opportunities arise and in time your baby will sign “help” to you when they need you!
Want to learn more signs to teach your baby?
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An Antidote to Helplessness—Melissa’s Baby Sign Language Story
Melissa works full-time outside the home as a clinical psychologist with a focus on trauma. She is a first-time mama to her son Max (13 months), who she is absolutely crazy about and falls more in love with each day. Melissa is extremely grateful for Max and his ebullient, loving, resilient and generous spirit; he inspires her to approach life with more awe, humor, and kindness every day.
How We Started Baby Sign Language
I have always been fascinated by the use of sign language, and baby sign language was one of the early ways I communicated with Max.
We started communicating when he was in utero. The first time I heard Max’s heartbeat, it was like he was telling me, “Don’t worry mama. . . . I may not move that much, but I’m doing just fine in here.” Every time he moved, it felt like communication.
When Max was around 6 or 7 weeks old, he would coo and pause. I would talk back, and then he would coo in response. It felt like a conversation.
Then we started signing. The first sign we recognized in Max was fan at the age of 10 months. In retrospect, I realize he had been signing all done even before that. There were times we thought he was swatting us away (especially when we were giving him medications), when he was actually signing and articulating his desire to be all done.
Baby Signing Success
I was excited at first about signing. As time went on with him not responding, I worried I would have the first baby who never signed back. That worry was tied to my concerns about his cognitive development secondary to feeding issues and slow weight gain. Despite that worry, signing turned out to be a saving grace.
When Max was just a few months old he would regularly be in intense pain, and each week he continued to decrease percentiles in weight and height. Eventually, his GI distress got so intense that his discomfort was undeniable.
In the hospital
Several specialists, medical procedures, feeding therapy appointments, and inpatient hospitalizations later, we ended up with a feeding tube. It helped our child grow but it felt so unnatural. I was on a strict allergen-free elimination diet, I was pumping 7–8 times per day so that my breast milk could be put into the tube, we were dosing him with several meds several times per day, and we were waking up throughout the night to tend to his distress and issues with the pump.
Practicing signing with Max gave us a respite from all of that—something fun and positive to focus on that continued cultivating our relationship and that had nothing to do with feeding issues. And when Max finally did start signing back, we felt pride, success, and accomplishment in what had been such a long road of confusion, questions, and mistakes.
Once Max picked up a few signs, it wasn’t long until there was a sign language explosion! I went from thinking Max would never sign to feeling like I can hardly keep up with learning new signs to teach him. I am telling others about his signs and making videos of signs and his approximations so others can support him.
Signing was something we did together in the midst of something chaotic and terrible, so it helped us to see how resilient we truly are as a family. Max’s signing reassured me that we were all going to be okay.
Signing has helped Max understand what we are saying more fully, in both English and Spanish, even if he doesn’t have the signing or verbal vocabulary to respond. At 13 months he’s signing fan, all done, light, book, more, dog, orange, stick, milk, and up, and verbally he says hi, bye-bye, up, ball, and book. We’re constantly trying to figure out more that he’ll be motivated to use. It’s such a thrill to see him beam with pride and excitement as he communicates and is understood.
Max Signs “fan!”
Baby Signing Challenges and Surprises
I’ve been surprised by abstract signs like more. That was one he signed very quickly. I thought he was confusing it with cherries because the first time he signed it was in the presence of cherries. But he actually understood what it meant and had generalized it to other contexts.
Learning about recognizing early signs has helped me recognize early verbal words in a way that I wouldn’t have without Lane’s instruction. So many of the tips for recognizing early approximations of signs parallel ways to recognize approximations of verbal words.
What We Love about Baby Sign Language
Max is such a social baby and has always been that way, and so I think baby sign language really meshed well with his natural predilections and strengths.
Splashing in slime
Baby sign language makes life so much easier and less frustrating when you are able to understand one another. But mostly, it has given me a source of mastery and accomplishment. Baby sign language has been an antidote to the helplessness I’ve felt throughout the feeding issues. To be able to know what he needed or wanted, and to meet that need if we could, has helped me feel competent, effective, and attuned. So many times I have thought, “What do parents with babies who CAN’T sign do?”
How Tiny Signs Online Helped
Tiny Signs has without a doubt been the foundation of our success.
The Tiny Signs class is presented in digestible chunks that are accessible and easy for busy family. Nothing is repetitive or extraneous. The tips are useful and not necessarily something you would find elsewhere. But really, the key is Lane.
Lane is so inspiring! She helps you stay connected to the fun. Lane’s spirit and passion is contagious. You feel gratitude that your paths crossed and that what she is doing is a calling.
Lane is so responsive and encouraging in a genuine and heartfelt way—and that is hard to convey via electronic means! Every time Max signs a new sign, I want to show her a video to share in the excitement. We wouldn’t be here without her.
Lane, you are amazing, and we’re so thrilled to have had your help. We can’t thank you enough.
Join Tiny Signs Online
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