If you are in a household where you only speak one language, then teaching your child sign language is like teaching another language and gives them all the benefits of bilingual children Image Credit: Shutterstock

First-time mum Amna Saleh was looking for activities for her six-month-old when she stumbled upon a centre that teaches children how to use sign language. “In the beginning, she had delayed speech because [we are a] bilingual [house],” she tells Gulf News.

“I’m Iraqi and my husband, Erwan Robert, is French – so there [are many] languages in the household. [By] teaching her sign language, she was able to connect [words in] both languages [with] one meaning. For example, when she signed for milk – I speak English so I say milk. My husband speaks French so he says ‘lait’. But they both have the same sign, so she can connect the French and the English both with the same sign, so she has learnt two [other] languages through this sign language,” she laughs.

“Sign language has been around for thousands of years with the earliest recorded instance in 5BC by Plato,” writes Shonali Lihala, Chief Play Officer, from play centre Katie Jane Dubai, in an interview with Gulf News.

Amna Saleh with her daughter
Amna Saleh with her daughter, Eva Robert.

“In the 1980s, Joseph Garcia [an American Sign Language interpreter] noticed children of deaf parents were communicating [with their children] using their hands [when they were] as young as 10 months and pioneered research in this area. Other researchers like Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn delved deeper into this phenomenon,” she adds.

“What they discovered was revolutionary, using sign language babies were able to understand and communicate back. Sign language bridged that gap between spoken language and boosted communication development. Through using sign language, babies have a way to communicate their needs even before they are physically able to speak,” explains Lihala.

Like Kate Ferguson, parents find that there is a lag between when kids want to communicate what they want and how they can verbalise it. “Verbal speech for children begins to develop with babbling, but first words only appear from one year to 15 months of age. Even then verbal communication is limited as children can only say a few words,” explains Lihala. But by the time they are six months old, they can understand language.

This is where sign language – the use of gestures to convey a thought – comes in. Ferguson, who has a two-year-old son, says: “We found [that] with sign language, he was able to convey to us what he wanted when he didn’t have the words yet. We found it very beneficial. Just simple things like milk or more or mummy or daddy – we taught him straightforward gestures and he still sometimes uses them even though he can speak now.”

American Sign Language - ASL Image Credit: Shutterstock

Benefits of sign language with babies

Lihala says being able to communicate takes one irritant out of the equation, leading to fewer tantrums in the first year of a baby’s life. Here are some other benefits listed by her:

Helps strengthen baby-mother bond: Sign language also helps mums to connect with their babies and develop a closer bond with them. The increased interaction time, bonding, eye contact and joint attention inherent in teaching an infant sign language has been proven to have some benefits on language development (Johnston et al, 2005; DeLuzio & Girolametto, 2006).

Helps lingual skills: Children who use sign language to communicate have shown more complex language sentence structures. Hearing infants whose parents encouraged symbolic gestures outperformed children whose parents encouraged vocal language on follow-up tests of receptive and expressive vocal language (Goodwyn, Acredolo, and Brown, 2000).

Sign language can help babies to understand the link between different languages. The sign for “milk” is the same whether you say it in English or Arabic.

Additional aid: If you are in a household where you only speak one language, then teaching your child sign language is like teaching another language and gives them all the benefits of bilingual children. Research shows that Bilingual children show benefits in executive function skills like self-control and attention (Bialystok & Martin, 2004; Zelazo, Carlson, & Kesek, 2008)

How to teach your child sign language

Begin teaching simple gestures early, says Lihala. “Consistency is key. Use an established sign language like British or American Sign Language,” she adds.

When Ferguson’s son was learning sign language, she says, the family made sure they reinforced the gestures every chance they got. “We’d kind of constantly reinforce it [words and gestures], so whenever we’d give him milk or he’d breastfeed we’d do the sign so he’d start associating it together. It’s not an immediate thing but if you keep using it and everyone in the family uses it, then kids just pick it up. They are amazing sponges of information.”

“My main thing was…I really just wanted to be able to give him the tools to communicate with us and for us to communicate with him in a non-verbal way, so he could tell us what he wanted or needed,” she said.

Conversation is key to understanding and healthy development – and learning how to sign is a fine tool to use for it.

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