I have always been fascinated with sign language already as a child, but when I first told my husband about Baby Sign Language, while I was pregnant for the first time, he was not as enthusiastic as I had hoped.
“It’s too alternative“ he claimed. What?! I wanted to push the subject, but I imagined him frantically waving around his large hands attempting to untangle his fingers in order to sign an expression to a restless unhappy baby.
Not a pretty thought, so I decided against it. Given that we both knew nothing yet about parenting, I instead conceded to “Let’s see if baby also disagrees.“
Reading up on sign language
But it did not stop me from reopening my old books and notes in ASL and FSL (American and Filipino Sign Language) that I had collected over the years from the few lessons I had attended in highschool, and later on, in courses in Manila.
I had read an article long ago that sign language was also useful to teach to young children to help in language development.
Because babies develop their motor skills before their language skills, when they are able to associate simple expressions like “milk“ and “eat“ to important needs like “thirst“ and “hunger“, they are able to communicate their needs early on, even before they are able to speak.
This understandably led to less frustrated children, and they even claimed that they were also less likely to throw tantrums.
So, of course, I definitely wanted to give it a try on our baby.
I proceeded to buy a set of flash cards and books catered especially for learning baby sign language based on ASL.
I started practicing the signs on my own, and soon my husband started getting curious, too.
My baby learns to “speak“
Fastforward a few months later, and I found my husband using the first basic signs for “more”, “water”, and “finished,” while speaking to our 6-month-old son during a meal.
The simple act of giving “more” food was celebrated when our son managed a faint semblance of the sign, bringing two closed palms together as if to clap with fists.
And when his eyes would follow our gesture for “water“ (tipping the letter “w“ to the mouth as if to drink from the forefinger), while he was busy squirming and complaining in his seat, we were telling him “This is water.”
And when he finished his plate, we gave him a big smile, one clapping hand in sign (holding up the hand, and rotating back and forth excitedly) and exclaimed “finished!,” showing an open palm and turning it down.
This was clearly the best entertainment of the meal, as he would present us with such a gleeful two-tooth grin. It was obvious that he was having fun, too!
Using sign in raising bilingual children
This marked the beginning of our family journey to signing to our children before their first word.
And because we knew early on that we wanted to raise our children bilingual, paired with sign language, we soon realized that it worked like the bridge language between the two.
When I would sign “water” and say “tubig,” my Swiss-German husband would sign “water,” but say “Wasser” instead. Being consistent and adding an overall sense of playfulness, the challenge of speaking to our son in two different mother tongues became less daunting and more like playing dancing hands.
Including Grandma and extended family in the exercise
One afternoon, while on a play date, my grandmother asked us what our son meant when he put his fists together as if to clap. “More“ he was signing during mealtimes. After that she was hooked, too, trying to decode his baby gestures whenever he showed her a sign with his hands and waited expectantly for a reaction.
The enthusiasm spread to other relatives too, and even to his babysitter and the staff at his daycare because they noticed as well that he was signing to them. And so they learned a few signs, but it was usually enough that they understood and responded. And everyone was happy.
Inventing our own language
Soon we started inventing our own signs when we failed to find it in the books or notes that we had, like the sign for “meat” and “rice” and “music”. Our son, in turn, was happy to use the signs he needed-official or invented-to tell us what he wanted.
By 18 months, he had a building vocabulary of more than 50 words of sign and spoken words, and kept growing it at a relentless pace. He was signing intentionally and consistently, sometimes pairing his signs with appropriate noises like “meow” for cat or words like “gatas” for milk.
By the time he turned two, we slowly started signing less and less as he continued to speak clearer and better. And to our delight, by the time he turned there, and we were soon expecting our second son, he was also speaking fluently in both his mother tongue, Filipino, and his father tongue, German.
In the wake of our second son‘s arrival, it was a relief to realize I would no longer need to struggle to make myself understood to my first born.
My 3-year-old son is now teaching his baby brother
Now half a year later and our second boy is six-months-old. My husband says, “You’ll start signing with him as well, right?“ Well, no worries there.
The other day I found our three-year old reading and signing a boardbook to his baby brother in the playpen. What a wonderful sight! So I guess being “too alternative“ isn’t that bad after all.
Cherry is married to Michael whom she met in a museum in Rome in 2006. Now they live in his hometown in the countryside of central Switzerland with their two sons.
Watch: Santa signs to child who can’t speak well
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