things I didn’t understand when I didn’t have a kid

Here is a partial list:

  • Dustbusters
  • Minivans
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Eating at the drive-thru
  • Leashes on small children
  • Not watching depressing movies
  • Plastic drinking glasses

And baby sign language. When Elana introduced the idea (before we even had a child), I was skeptical. It seemed like the kind of thing pretentious moms with too much time on their hands get really into and then blog about it.

Well now I AM THAT MOM!

Except I’m a dad.

Anyway, here is my argument. At 18 months, our child knows the following words in (a slightly modified) ASL, or as a gesture he has made up himself:

all done
wash hands

He started with “nursing” — Elana signed it to him whenever she picked him up to feed him, from infancy, and by about a year he was imitating the sign. Soon thereafter he was using it in a very general-purpose way to mean “give it to me” or “I want something.” It was his first directly communicative expression, along with shaking his head “no.”

Most of the signs above he added between 14 and 18 months. By contrast, his spoken language has lagged somewhat. Not his receptive language, mind you — he can pick words out of the middle of a sentence, for example, which is a somewhat advanced skill. So if you’re talking to Other Parent and you say, “Do you want some of this Chicken Kiev I’m preparing?” he will sometimes come up to you and sign “chicken.” But in terms of generating spoken language, he’s been a bit of a slowpoke. For months his only consistent word was “nana” for “banana.” He has since added “mama” and “dada” as well as some expressive nonverbal sounds. But I can’t imagine how difficult and frustrating our lives with this energetic, demanding child would be if we had no way to talk to him about anything but bananas and his parentage. Instead we have quite rich conversations, in which he can communicate at least his basic thoughts about most subjects he’s interested in, and he’s now beginning to put together two-word sentences, such as “more drink” and “owl movie.”

One could argue, of course, that by teaching him to communicate in signs, we are removing the motivation to learn to speak. That’s a fair point, in theory, and one I’ve worried about. But in reality I think signing may turn out to be a boon to his linguistic development. Research suggests that correct identification and repetition of the word your child is trying to say is the most useful thing you can do to help him learn. So if, for example, your child is pointing at a glass of water and saying, “buh-buh,” chances are he’s trying to say “water,” and if you start guessing “ball?” or “bottle? you want your bottle?” based on his (mistaken) phonemes, you’re just going to confuse him and delay his progress in learning the word “water.”

What’s great about the signing is that it provides a way for him to communicate clearly what he’s trying to say while he experiments with the sounds. So if he wants to say “goat,” he can indicate that, and we can model the sounds for him. Already I feel this may be paying dividends. Recently he has taken to saying “Aa! Aa!” while signing “angry,” and “Moo! Moo!” while signing “movie.” Because the sign accompanies the sound, I don’t waste time asking about cows. I just say, “Yes — movie!”

The point is not, of course, that signing to your child will get him into Yale. Everybody learns to speak sooner or later, and as far as I know there’s no correlation between speaking early and academic success. The yields here are, instead, practical and immediate — you and your child both spend less time being frustrated. That’s the big win, and that’s why I’d recommend signing to any parent who’s even remotely interested in the idea.

Also, plastic drinking glasses. Just get used to them. You can have nice things again when he’s in college.

UPDATE: Elana would like me to add that he also knows how to say “ice.” This is a recent development, so we’ll have to wait to see if it sticks. But he says it very cutely, almost a whisper, “Aithh… aithh….” I should also mention that he knows how to say “yuh” and “nah,” indicating, of course, affirmative and negative.


9 responses to “things I didn’t understand when I didn’t have a kid

  1. Believe me, you can’t have nice things again until after college – when you can then afford them.

    Also? As long as he’s not signing/saying “Ice Ice Baby,” I think you’ll do just fine.

  2. Yeah I agree, no nice things till everyone leaves home and the dogs die.
    But you can at least enjoy primary colors for a long time.

  3. What a huge vocabulary! The baby and sign language mix is such a great idea.

  4. Owl movie?

    • thehandsomecamel

      For when he wants to see movies about owls. (Not really movies — YouTube videos. But still.)

  5. I’m sending this post to Jackson’s grandma since you explain it all so well!

  6. *it = using sign language with babies!

  7. Pingback: a brief and unscientific update on language | Fighting Commies For Health Insurance!

  8. Pingback: the word became flesh and dwelt among us | Fighting Commies For Health Insurance!

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