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Baby Sign Language for Bilingual Families: The Missing Link?

by guest blogger Nancy Hanauer
parent educator and founder of Hop to Signaroo

Approximately 20% of the nation's children grow up in bilingual homes, and Washington State is certainly no exception to that national average. Washington, and the Seattle-area in particular, is a melting pot of cultures. This is due, in large part, to high-tech talent being recruited from around the globe by some of our biggest, local companies. But our state is home to bilingual families of every socio-economic level with parents working in a variety of jobs and those families all have one thing in common - they want the very best for their children. Which is why I'm often asked about the role signing with hearing babies, to reduce frustration and aid early communication, would play in a bi
lingual home.

Most parents recognize the benefits of raising a child in a home in which two language are spoken. The children often grow up with a richer understanding of their native culture and the ability to connect with extended family at home and abroad. Additionally, processing twolanguages early in life improves brain developmental and overall language understanding. Learning two languages early in life is also believed to possibly make learning additional languages easier later in life, likely due to enhanced brain “wiring” for easier language earning that may last a lifetime.

Learning any language is easiest from birth to three years of age. Language acquisition is one of the primary functions of the brain in the first three years of life. This is further reinforced byte fact that in the first seven to eight months of life, all babies babble in every spoken language imaginable! We are born as citizens of the globe with the desire to speak and communicate, and the ability to speak any language we hear on a regular basis. However, at about seven to eight months of age, babbling becomes culturally specific. The non-native speech sounds that babies don't hear on a regular basis begin to disappear from their babbling repertoire. Also, it's at about this age that parents begin to reinforce babbling that sounds like words in the parents' native language. So while a baby has been babbling in Russian, Spanish and Chinese, a parent who speaks only English will only respond to and reinforce what actually sounds like an English word. If the parent is bilingual, speech patterns from both languages will be reinforced, setting the stage for a bilingual baby. And so begins the conversation between parents and babies!

It's typically at about this age, or a month or two earlier, that families often begin to consider the use of sign language to aid early communication and reduce frustration. Well-read parents and members of parent and baby support groups have typically heard about the amazing benefits of using American Sign Language (ASL) as a temporary means of communication before babies are able to speak fluently, and many have learned that babies are able to sign back as early as five months of age. Savvy parents of all backgrounds recognize that signing greatly reduces their baby's frustration and their own, as little ones can sign basic needs such as "milk", "feed me" and "change my diaper" with simple ASL signs many months before intelligible speech is possible. To learn more about the benefits and basics for signing with hearing babies, please read my previous post.

As bilingual families begin to consider signing with their little ones, their first question is usually "Will introducing ASL signs to my baby confuse her if she's already hearing two spoken languages?" Well, I'm happy to report the answer is a resounding, "No." The use of ASL signs will actually help your baby connect the spoken languages he or she is hearing. Whether you say "leche" in Spanish or "milk" in English, or "eat" and "manger" in an English and French speaking home, you'll use the same signs for the two languages your child is hearing. This gives your little one a concrete link to connect the two spoken languages, making the shared understanding of the two languages stronger.

Many bilingual families use a One Person, One Language (OPAL) approach, meaning each parent speaks one language to the baby. An expectant mom I met recently said she's very interested in signing with her baby, as she and her husband will be using the OPAL approach with Mommy speaking English and Daddy speaking his native French. We discussed how both parents using the same key signs will help their little one link the two spoken languages for better understanding of both. She was thrilled to hear this because up until that point she thought the signs would most helpful to her. She had total confidence that her soon-to-be-born baby would easily pick up both French and English but her greater concern was that she wouldn't learn the French Daddy was speaking. She was fearful that when the baby started saying words in French, she wouldn't understand and wouldn't be able to respond to her baby's requests ala Francais! Her plan was to introduce ASL signs so the baby could sign as he or she spoke French and that way Mommy, who knows no French, would be sure to understand her baby's needs and wants. After speaking with me about the benefits of signing for bilingual babies, she was even more excited about the idea of signing with her little one, now that she knew that ASL signs would help both her and her baby to communicate effectively and process French and English.

Other parents of bilingual homes choose to introduce both spoken languages in the same context. This is not as popular as the OPAL method, but I have heard of some parents taking this approach. For example, a parent may say, "Do you want to eat?" in both German and English, one sentence voiced after the other. The sign for "eat" would be signed in both sentences. Again, this gives the baby a concrete link to better understand German and English and empowers the baby to sign the key aspect of those sentences, long before she can say "eat" in English or "essen" in German. In her wonderfully developing brain, the sign for "eat" is now linked with "eat" and "essen" thanks to the connection made by using the same ASL sign with both languages.

Sometimes, bilingual babies (who don't sign) speak a little bit later than their monolingual peers. This is not due to any sort of language delay but rather they're building a better understanding of language by processing two languages, and that takes a little longer. Children learning any language generally acquire receptive language skills first, which is understanding of the language. This is followed by expressive language or being able to communicate that language. Therefore, if two languages are being heard, babies have a little extra processing to attend to. However, when you link those two spoken languages with American Sign Language, the ASL signs appear to speed up that dual processing. About 25% of the families in my Hop to Signaroo ® classes have been bilingual and many get back in touch once their babies are speaking. They routinely report that their babies spoke at the same time as their monolingual peers and didn't seem to experience that "bilingual speech lag" that some babies seem to experience when learning two languages in infancy. These parents were convinced it was because the ASL signs used gave their little one a concrete link to connect the two spoken languages. Remember, even if a normally developing bilingual baby does experience a slight speech lag, it's not due to a deficit. This occurs because the baby is processing two languages and developing a stronger overall understanding of language. Even when speech appears a bit later than usual for bilingual babies, research has shown that they still have a linguistic advantage over their monolingual peers. The use of ASL signs with bilingual babies certainly won't confuse your little one or slow the speech or linguistic process but will actually aid the process, enhancing language understanding and speech skills.

ASL signs have also been a very valuable tool for parents thrust into a bilingual situation after adopting a toddler-aged child from another country. I've had families attend my sign language classes right before or right after adopting a little one from a foreign orphanage. In those cases, the toddlers often had some speech and understanding of their native language but no understanding of English. In many cases, these little ones had language delays, even in their native language, as children in orphanages often receive less verbal stimulation from adults and peers. This results in less exposure to vocabulary and sentence structure and an impoverished language base in their native language, along with no understanding of English. Families with their newly adopted children who added ASL vocabulary to their spoken English found that these toddlers quickly learned English, thanks again to the concrete and often iconic and representational signs of ASL.

Not a bilingual family? The use of ASL signs with your hearing, monolingual baby is actually laying the foundation for a bilingual baby. American Sign Language is the third most commonly used language in the United Sates, after English and Spanish. When any family signs with their hearing baby or toddler to aid early communication and reduce frustration, they're planting the seeds of learning a beautiful second language that 20 million North Americans rely on as their main means of communication.

Children are sponges in the first few years of life, especially when it comes to language, so increasing language understanding and development is a very worthwhile endeavor. Signing is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to enhance language development, no matter how many languages Mommy and Daddy speak!

(c) 2012 by Nancy Hanauer

Views expressed by guest bloggers may not be the views of Washington Parenting Education Network or all of its members. Guest bloggers are wholly responsible for the content of their posts.


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