Monday, February 20, 2012

give me a sign, baby!

Eureka!  A green plastic thingy!  Life is fascinating!
At seven months old--and so curious about the world around her that she only grudgingly accepts to nap lest she miss out on something exciting, like Griffin knocking down yet another tower, Daddy blowing his nose, or Maman making a cup of tea--Gwyneth is definitely ready for us to use baby sign language as we speak to her.  Grinning and squealing and reaching out to grab us, she pays close attention to our faces and our hands when we address her.

It will probably be months before she can make recognizable signs in return--assuming that we can make a habit of signing to her consistently--but hey, it will certainly be months before she'll start talking, and the signs will allow her to tell us what she wants, what she needs, what she sees, what hurts in the meantime.

When I say "we," I mean my husband and me, but also her four-year-old brother.  So far, Griffin is showing a lot of interest in the signs; occasionally, I'll even notice him making a sign as he talks to someone besides the baby!  He and I review the signs in the car and over meals, mostly, and the three of us watch a few minutes of a baby sign DVD each night, so that we're not trying to learn too many signs in a short period of time.

[Update: On March 15, we were practicing the baby signs at dinner in a local restaurant.  We had just worked on please, thank you, and sorry when I caught Griffin picking his nose and ingesting the results.  I snapped at him, and before he mumbled his usual "Sorry I won't do it again," his hand came up to his chest and he made the sign for "I'm sorry"!]

What really makes me happy is that Griffin is seeing--experiencing, in fact--that he now knows at least three ways to convey a (simple) idea.  He can use English, French, sign language, or a combination thereof, depending on his interlocutors, understanding instinctively that one object can have many labels.   If all goes well, this will be a "duh!" concept for Gwyneth too.

And I really like the idea that the baby sign language can be a bridge between English and French as she's acquiring language.  If her daddy and brother squeeze their hands and say "milk," and later I make the same gesture as I announce "lait," then the meaning of the word is reinforced without our ever having to explicitly translate it for her.

Plus, encouraging Griffin to sign to Gwyneth should help develop a stronger connection between them and give him a reason to speak French to her!  (His language of choice is currently English, but with a little encouragement will switch to French.  But I'd rather have him speak French spontaneously, of course.)

Here's what I really want: a free video (eg, YouTube) or inexpensive iPad app of children demonstrating American English baby sign language while a narrator explains the gestures in French.  Because sign language varies from country to country, native-French baby sign instruction would not necessarily mirror what we're using (baby sign language adapted from ASL, American Sign Language).  But if the video or app were narrated in French, then Griffin and I could watch it over and over and practice together.  (Since I only speak to the kids in French, I don't want to waste our non-Daddy time watching TV or movies in English.)

Any suggestions for ASL-based baby signs explained in French???  What are your other favorite baby sign resources?  We really like the Baby Signing Time DVDs (which we've been borrowing from the library).  I also picked up these iPad apps:  babysign (I love the alphabetical list --it's easy to select a word and see the sign for it), which unfortunately shows British English baby signs (which seem to vary a bit from the ASL ones), and Sign Shine, with video clips of someone signing to ten familiar children's songs.


  1. Baby signing was SUCH a help with our first child and I'm looking forward to starting up with our second (currently four months old). I noted the same thing as you, that the sign was a bridge between the mommy language and the daddy language, since we agreed in advance (i.e. I told him) which sign to use in conjunction with our own language. The signed words seemed to be the first she understood as well as the first she said.

    My main source for signs was a small book we were given and an online ASL video dictionary. I searched around until I found a sign I thought was simple enough (not requiring a lot of finger dexterity) to work for a one year old, and I taught them simply by using them.

    As you say, sign language is different in every country and the "children's" sign systems are different still, so you may not find a video with American signs and French narration. I wondered about something Canada-based, but even if the signs are the same, the French is different, so that might be counter-productive.

    But the main point is, sign language = totally worth it. Started a lot of conversations with people who wondered why I was responding to my daughter's gestures as if she were actually saying something, though!

    1. Melissa, you're doing a much better job of keeping up with other people's blogs with a baby than I am....thank you for your recent comments! How are things going with baby M and his big sister K?

      I wish I could remember more about using signs with baby Griffin. I know that my husband and I learned the basics--milk, more, bear, book, diaper, "you're driving me up the wall!" (we made that one up)--but now I have no idea if Griffin responded in kind.

      There are probably some scrawled notes on post-its in the folder labelled "for when I get around to making a baby book for Griffin, hopefully before he graduates from high school." Or maybe somewhere on my blog?

      Thanks for reinforcing the idea that using signs with the bilingual baby is valuable! I hope M picks up on them quickly (and that K willingly uses them with him too).

    2. Yes, I am great at reading other people's blogs but not so hot on writing my own! It's much easier to read while breastfeeding than to write, you know. :)

      I'm glad to hear you haven't made a baby book for Griffin, since I haven't done one either. My mom did one for all five of hers so I felt like a bit of a slacker. I do have a compelling collection of Facebook statuses, though, which has to count for something.

      We made up signs, too - once K picked up on the concept she was eager to come up with a few of her own, which we adopted as well. I've just started signing "milk" regularly with M (best to start with just one or two I think and then branch out) so our signing days are coming soon!

    3. Hey, FB status updates count! They're the baby book for the new generation! Just print them on pretty paper, decorate with some stickers, and throw them in an album.

      I've thought about making up signs to represent people's names, like G + chaos signed over my heart for Griffin (we called him "Captain Chaos" for a long time). That's cool that K developed her own signs!

  2. Fascinating stuff! I have a question: is there always a delay in speaking and fluency with bilingual children? I'm in Luxembourg where there are 3 official languages, and English isn't one of them! Eek!

  3. To Caroline -- What little I've read suggests that multilingual kids don't achieve their language milestones any later than monolingual kids (though every kid is different, of course!), though they often have a smaller initial vocabulary in each of their languages than a monolingual child might (even if their total vocabulary is the same or larger). Of course, research tells us new things all the time, so someone might have proved me wrong already!

    1. Thanks Daina :-) I suppose it's difficult to tell as, like you say, every child's different and we're constantly finding out new info! To be honest though, I think it's such a bonus for kids to have more than one language that even if there is a slight delay, it's worth it in the long run.

    2. Yes, it's a fallacy that growing up with more than one language will result in a speech delay for a child. And apparently there are still pediatricians out there who discourage parents from raising their kids multilingually because of this myth. But really, from what I've heard, medical school spends very little time on language acquisition, and none on second language acquisition or multilingualism.

      It's probably safe to say that we parents using more than one language with our children know more about the process than their doctors do!

      See this post from Multilingual Mania (plus the other ones about myths that it links to):

      Daina and Caroline, thank you for your questions and answers!

  4. I'm so glad I used sign language with our son. He started talking just after his 2nd birthday, but for months before that he was able to communicate with signs. It made a frustrating time a lot easier! And you're right - I think sometimes it made the transition between English and German easier for him. Funny, now that he's talking, we've almost completely stopped signing. Although sometimes he'll sign a word if I'm having trouble understanding him :)

    My favorite tool was a set of flashcards. They were easy to use with clear pictures - the image on one side, the sign on the other, and labeled with the English word (but I could easily substitute the German word, too). They're called Baby Sign Language Flash Cards: A 50-Card Deck by Monta Z. Briant and cost about $10 on amazon. Aleksander loved looking at those cards - still does - and we learned a lot of words together that way! I also had her book of signs that I occasionally used as a reference, as well as a set called "Songs for Little Hands" that combined signing with songs. But I have to admit, we never really did those - I think because not all the songs were standard children's songs, and I've had enough to do just learning German Kinderlieder!

    Have fun with your signing! Makes me want to start again :)

    1. Kate, I love the fact that Aleksander was able to communicate with you so well for so many months without even needing to talk!

      Thanks for the flashcard recommendation--it looks like they're out of print but still available through Amazon, so I'm placing an order right away! I'm also going to borrow Briant's book from our library.

      The book we used when Griffin was a baby is good, too, especially since it came with a laminated fold-out card with the signs on it, but now I think some of his ideas are a little kooky, like restrict yourself to three basic signs until your child can use them in return. What?! We certainly don't limit our spoken language to our child to only three concepts.

      You miss signing? Maybe Aleksander would get a kick out of it if you started it up again just as a way to reinforce German! (And you probably know a lot more German songs now.)

    2. I mentioned the starting with a few signs above, too, which will obviously depend on your style, but it was helpful for me to start with just a few (I think milk, food and drink) for my own sake, to avoid getting frustrated. Not for the child's sake. I remember signing up a storm for a few months, getting no response, thinking "this kid is never going to cotton on", giving up in disgust, then several months later starting back up with a limited number of signs and finally getting results. Made it more manageable for me. This may be less useful for those with 1) more patience, or 2) children who get on board faster. Anyway, it may be more about keeping things manageable than anything else - and thus not applicable to spoken language which you use all the time anyway. :)

    3. Thanks for sharing--limiting the number of signs you use does make more sense when you describe it that way! I wonder if the recommendation varies according to the child's age? I'm just so eager for Gwyneth to be able to express herself better to us!

    4. The other day, Aleksander started signing "shoes" again for no apparent reason - he was eating lunch at the time! I started making some signs and asking what they were. Not only did he remember all the ones we used to use, he could even identify signs we never made - all because he knew them from looking at the flashcards!!
      FYI - the flashcards can still be ordered from Amazon:

  5. This topic is fascinating! Unfortunately, we only speak one primary language in our house (English) and we used American Sign Language Vocabulary to communicate preverbally. I do have a friend, however, that is teaching her children English, Spanish & ASL and it seems to be going very well. She basically uses the signs as a connector to the words in each language. She said that what she usually does is say the word in Spanish as she signs it and then repeats it in English, still signing it. I publish the Baby Sign Language Academy website and this is actually a topic we have on our to-do list to write about. By the way, we also have a pretty extensive online video dictionary (about 550 words and growing). Type in the word and if it's there a video will pop up along with a written description.

  6. Amanda, thank you so very much for sharing this resource with us! I love the video dictionary (I was finally able to learn "frustrated"!) And your site also provides great explanations, justifications, and links to other resources. I'm adding it to my blogroll and my Pinterest boards!

    Would you mind letting me know if/when you publish an article about bilingualism and baby signing? Thanks!

    (Readers, her site is: Check it out!)