Magpie (who is now going under the identity of J, but I’m used to Magpie – maybe I should refer to her as the blogger formerly known as Magpie) has been asking about teaching babies to sign. Personally, I’m all in favour of it – not only is it one of the few areas in parenthood where there’s actually evidence of a particular benefit in doing things this way, but it’s also both useful and fun.
While signing was always on my list of things that sounded like good ideas to try with a baby, I was slow to get going with it, due to a mixture of my innate lack of organisation and some practical problems. First I figured it wasn’t a priority in his first few months of life, then I got distracted by the minor matter of moving half way across the country. Then, when I tried going to a local babysigning class, I drove twenty-five miles to the venue on the day Jamie picked to decide he DIDN’T WANT TO BE IN THIS CAR SEAT, DAMN YOU, only to find that the organisers hadn’t considered it important to state on their website that the class had split up for the holidays by that stage. This put me off the whole endeavour somewhat.
I did think about getting a book on the subject, but the books I saw on it all seemed to be ASL (American Sign Language) rather than BSL (British… oh, you get the picture). I do feel quite strongly that babies who are taught sign language ought to be taught the sign language of their own country. Of course, this argument didn’t work too well given that I wasn’t teaching Jamie any sign language, but tracking down a source from which I could learn some BSL signs was on my mental list of Things I Will Get Around To Doing Any Day Soon, so, of course, I didn’t do it and didn’t learn the ASL either. I did eventually manage to learn a few useful signs such as ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ and tried teaching him those, but he didn’t seem too interested. As time went on, I faced the fact that I’d missed the stage where all the books said that signing was particularly useful – the last few months of the first year, when comprehension is so far ahead of spoken language abilities. Jamie had reached the age where I could expect him to start talking any day now, and signing no longer really seemed worth it. I shrugged my shoulders and assigned signing to my mental list of things I’d do differently with the next baby.
Jamie did indeed start talking. Unfortunately, starting was all he did. Within vague sight of the textbook-dubbed time, he began using "muh-muh-muh" to mean "milk", and then, gradually, "da-da" to mean "Daddy". Then he decided that that was enough for now and no further comment on any situation would be necessary. In fact, for a while we ran into a Marklar situation, when Jamie decided that since waving his hands and yelling "Muh" got him milk when he wanted it, he should try this strategy for getting anything else he wanted as well. This limited the usefulness of the word somewhat, thereby cutting his practical use of language by a full fifty per cent.
Incidentally, I spent quite a bit of time worrying about whether I should be worrying about this. Jamie seemed to be doing all the other things he should be doing – taking his first steps, exploring everything, indulging in what is grandly called "interactive play" (blowing raspberries at Mummy and then screaming with laughter when Mummy blew raspberries back at him) – and my general feeling was that he was a perfectly normal little boy who would start talking in his own good time but whose own good time happened to differ somewhat from the textbooks’ own good time. However, not having been a mother long enough to feel totally confident that I could tell maternal intuition from wishful thinking, I worried about whether I was getting this totally wrong and missing early signs of some sort of disability that I should be moving heaven and earth to get him seen and treated for, the way all the heroic mothers did in the books. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be Paranoid Neurotic Mother either, and if I kicked up a fuss and got him seen by a specialist only to discover that he actually was as normal as I thought he was, I was going to feel pretty darned stupid.
Having thus spent some time vacillating in no-win land while sneaking peeks at every "By the age of X months you can reasonably expect your child to be doing… Some children with early signs of genius may be doing…. Panic if your child is not yet doing…." table that I could find, I did eventually manage to take him round for the weekly child-weighing at the local GPs, when one of my infrequent booked holidays actually coincided with the day the health visitor came round. This gave me the chance to mention my concerns casually to her in passing. She dismissed them just as casually (in her case, I think the casualness was genuine). Plenty of range in normality at this stage, she assured me, and if he seemed to be struggling when he was two we could rethink it then.
While I know this is the scene that shows up in Chapter 1 of every Life-With-My-Child’s-Terrible-Disability autobiography, it did reassure me quite a lot. However, it did not solve the practical problem of living with a small, determined, frustrated person who knew what he wanted but hadn’t yet figured out the niceties of letting Mummy and Daddy know. So, I reinvestigated the possibilities of sign language.
I’m getting out of chronological sync here for the purpose of narrative flow – my return to babysigning was actually a few months before that chat with the health visitor. I started it again after finding a copy of Signing Smart in the local library and mistaking it for a BSL-based guide. Since it actually turned out to be ASL yet again it was no help on the actual signs, but it proved to have some very useful information on how to get started with signing.
I realised where I’d been going wrong – I’d tried to teach Jamie signs that would be useful for me if he knew them, but, in fact, he was likely to pick it up a lot more quickly if I mixed in a few signs for things that interested him. The book suggested starting with between six and twelve signs first, evenly split between the useful and the interesting-to-baby (the authors had some slightly twee term for both these categories which currently escape me) and had several good suggestions for making the signs apparent enough to Jamie that he’d notice that Mummy was actually doing something more purposeful than just waving her hands around randomly.
So, I delved through my available resources in order to dig up sufficient signs, and finally managed to track down and get hold of a babysigning book that used BSL, and started trying to use the signs at every available opportunity and then make a few more available opportunities into the bargain, fortifying myself with glances back at the bits of the book that told me about the benefits while trying to avoid all the bits about how many benefits I could have had had I been organised enough to get going with this a lot earlier. I persevered through several long, tiresome, discouraging weeks. And, eventually, there came the day when Jamie was going into unexplained meltdown one day while Barry was taking care of him and suddenly stopped with the air of one who’s realised there’s a Better Way and, instead, raised his hand to his mouth in the ‘eat’ sign. We had communication.
Since then, Jamie’s also learnt his own versions of ‘milk’, ‘light on/off’, ‘ball’, ‘book’, ‘keys’, ‘hat’, ‘flower’, ‘more’, and ‘again’, as well as inventing his own sign for ‘music’ (clapping his hands). (Quick newsflash: Since I started writing this post, which, like most of mine, has stretched over several days worth of spare time, I can now confirm that he’s added ‘bird’ to that list.) I’m sure he could learn a lot more, but we haven’t really gone all out on it – we’ve kept it simple by sticking to the ones that seemed to come up most, and that list is further limited by our ability to find out what the signs for particular words are (I could really use signs for ‘window’, ‘balloon’, and ‘Liver Bird‘, but the authors of Let’s Sign – Early Years don’t seem to have considered those a priority). But just those few have made so much of a difference. I don’t just mean the obvious usefulness of Jamie now being able to tell us when he wants something to eat, or more of something – I mean the joy of having established a form of communication.
Of course, knowing more about what he’s thinking does have its drawbacks – having my child run to meet me at the door when I get in from work becomes just a tad less heartwarming when he signs ‘Keys’ and I realise that, actually, what he really wants isn’t me but the front door keys I’m holding in my hand. But… Today, while I was pushing him in the pushchair, he signed "Flower". It took me a moment to spot the dandelions growing by the roadside, which I hadn’t even noticed in my hurry to get to Tumbletots on time. Later on, in the supermarket, he signed "Ball". When I looked where he was looking, I realised that, indeed, the melons the woman ahead of us in the queue had unloaded onto the conveyor belt did look like balls. Even if I’d noticed them instead of just vaguely registering the existence of another shopper unloading groceries in the queue ahead, it would never have occurred to me that that was how they’d look to a toddler who didn’t know what melons were.
What I love most about signing is what I love most about motherhood – the sight of a brand new, independent little mind unfolding separately from mine, spotting different bits of the world and interpreting them differently. Signing gives me glimpses into this that I wouldn’t otherwise get. Being with Jamie is just that much more fun since we started signing.