08 February 2010

Will Teaching My Baby Sign Language Delay His Speech?

This is by far one of the most common questions I get from parents: Will teaching my baby to sign delay his speech?

As a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) I love to answer this question! A good deal of research has been done to address this and has shown us that babies who sign do not have an increased risk of delayed speech/language. In fact, research indicates that many babies who sign actually go on to have early, advanced speech. (you can see some of that research here, here, and here) Let's take a look at why this is so:

If you think about it, babies learn naturally to gesture. They throw their hands up in the air to indicate "up", they clap to indicate "I like that!", they point to express "I want that". Signing with a baby expands on this already present intuitive means of early communication.

Much like crawling is to walking, gesturing/signing is to speech. Crawling is a natural first step enabling a baby to explore her world before she is ready to walk. Signing empowers your child to communicate before she is ready to talk. Babies don't decide to forgo walking because they already have a method of moving around -- when their bodies are ready, they will walk! A point in time comes when walking becomes more effective than crawling. The same is true for signing and speech. Ultimately when your baby is ready, speech will be more effective than signing. Just as babies gradually move from crawling to walking, signing babies eventually transition from signing to speaking.

Oh how I love to think about, write about, chat about the many ways signing prepares a baby for speaking. Signing families are very focused on communicating and thus spend a great deal of time in face-to-face, language-rich interactions with baby. As parents are signing with their baby, they use lots of repetition of both the signs AND the spoken words (speaking and signing should happen simultaneously). They talk about the objects they are signing about, and repeatedly show these objects to baby, demonstrating how those objects are used to keep the baby's interest. All this practice with language and words results in signing babies having broad receptive vocabulary knowledge. The rest is like dominoes: The earlier a child understands a sign the sooner he can use the sign, the more signs he uses the more words he can speak when his little mouth, tongue and lips are ready! It also should be said that signing babies have the advantage of participating in give-and-take conversations much earlier than babies who don't sign. This too readies a child for spoken communication. All of these things come together to lay the foundation for speech. It's like all of the pieces are ready and waiting and as soon as a baby is able, speech will take off!

Certainly there are times when even a signing toddler has delayed speech. But it's NOT the signing that has caused this. In fact, for the reasons stated above, one of the first things a SLP will do with a child who is late to talk is teach them to sign! And for those families who do have a child with delayed speech, I encourage you to think about the ultimate goal of signing and speech: COMMUNICATION. I can assure you that many a family with a late-talking, signing child has thanked their lucky stars that their child could express himself in some way, alleviating so much frustration from breakdowns in communication.

Ultimately, signing will NOT cause your baby to have delayed speech. It WILL be one of the best things you do to help prepare your baby for talking!

(14 month old signing "WATER")

What is your experience with signing and it's role with speech? We love to hear your stories!

10 November 2009

Teaching Children a Second Language - Add American Sign Language (ASL) to the mix?

An increasing number of families are realizing the benefits of introducing their children to second (or more) languages from an early age. In this day in age it is becoming more and more possible to raise children bilingually. What an incredible gift!

Choosing and sticking with a plan for what is best for your family in regards to how to go about creating a bilingual home life can be quite challenging. When I bring up signing with a baby/child, a concern I often hear from parents who speak more than one language at home is “Will adding yet another language to the mix (American Sign Language) be too much? Won’t this be confusing for my child?!”

While this is a very natural way to feel, the answer is NO! In fact, using ASL signs with a child of any age who is learning more than one spoken language actually aids in the acquisition of the second language. This happens for a couple of reasons:

1) Signs serve as a visual cue of the new word’s meaning - Signs are often visually representative of the concept they represent. For example, when you sign BALL and say “pelota”, the sign is a great cue as to the meaning of the word because the sign for BALL actually looks like a ball! This is true for many signs.

2) Signs serve as bridges helping children to find commonalities between languages - In other words, a child may learn very early on that when you put your hands together (like the sign fore MORE) that means MORE! When you ask your child in the second language “Quieres Mas?” the first several times you might get a look from your child like “huh?!” But if you say “Quieres Mas?” while signing that familiar sign MORE, a light bulb will go on!! Instead of “huh?” your child will likely be thinking “I’m really not sure what mom just said, but I know that sign means MORE and yes, I want MORE!” Over time as he hears “Quieres Mas?” and simultaneously sees the sign MORE, he will connect meaning to the phrase, increasing understanding and thus use of the new language.

Adding signs to the mix will not confuse your child! Rather, it facilitates the process of understanding and using a new language. The is not only true for babies but for older children as well. This is just one of the many benefits of signing with a child!

What are your thoughts? Has anyone experienced that “light-bulb” moment mentioned above when they paired a sign with a “new” word? Would love to hear your stories!

29 October 2009

Is your child using Spanish outside the classroom setting? Things to look for...

The ultimate goal of learning Spanish is to indeed use it outside of class time! It can seem like a long wait, and getting "nothing" to the question of "What did you do in Spanish today?" can be so frustrating and worrisome!

However, seeing Spanish move out of class and into the rest of your child's life is truly just a matter of time, which varies from child to child AND with the kind of instruction they are getting. Play-based, communication-based lessons where the children are actively engaged and using Spanish to participate in activities is likely to produce faster results than a more passive class where children simply look at flash cards, repeat words, and color pictures of the objects.

We frequently see children in our classes using Spanish at home in the following ways:

1. Private practice.
Some children will play with Spanish sounds and words when they are playing or spending time alone. They may or may not be 'trying' to keep it secret or private. Some children just play at it quietly - almost subconsciously - while others are actually putting effort into practicing sounds and/or words by themselves, but not feeling confident or sure enough to share with others.

2. Inventing Spanish words and phrases.
I get lots of comments from parents... You know, she sounds like she's speaking Spanish, although I have no idea what she's saying! This may be 'real' Spanish or invented. Either way, it's appropriate, common, and fabulous!

3. Singing class-time songs.
If you haven't heard HOLA-HOLA yet, you might ask your child how it goes. If s/he can't remember how to start it on the spot, try putting your hand up by your face like you are going to wave hello and start to slowly say HO-LA. This often prompts our students to start singing the song. If that doesn't do it, don't worry! The cup may still be filling - it will runneth over!

4. Isolated words or phrases come out of nowhere.
Outside of class, a child might see an object that we are practicing the vocabulary for, or hear a word that sounds like a Spanish word from class and be inspired to say what they know out loud.

5. Active, conscious effort
to say or practice Spanish words or phrases outside of class. A child may (randomly or routinely) make Spanish part of their playtime with friends or decide to order in Spanish at a restaurant (Yo quiero ___ por favor = I want ___ please). This kind of use shows real mastery over what they are learning in terms of functional communication. It need not be perfectly pronounced or demonstrate perfect grammar. The idea that they recognize when to use Spanish and what words to use for a given situation shows their control of the language. Not to mention their interest and enthusiasm!

Whatever your child might be demonstrating in terms of Spanish at home is very likely to be a tiny fraction of what s/he does in class. They are bombarded during class and in being so, are in "Spanish mode." The familiar setting, materials, and routine activities of class help them access their spoken Spanish skills. Using their Spanish skills outside the class is what we always love to see and hear about, as it shows the cup filling up, enthusiasm about learning Spanish, and a growing mastery of its usage!

What have you seen your child do outside of class time?
Do you have questions along these lines?

We want to know so share below!!!


Why does my child say he learned "Nothing" in class?

Once in a while, I get a parent who mentions that their child doesn't seem to use Spanish outside the classroom and no matter what they try to prompt him/her with, they can't get anything out of them.

One reason for this "nothing" answer is the same reason your child answers "nothing" to many other questions such as "What did you do at Mary's house?" OR "What did you learn at school today?" OR "What did Sally say about the class guinea pig?" Children, at the moment we ask them a given question, often have their mind somewhere else... looking out the car window, playing with a toy, walking down a flight of stairs. Thus, we probe further... "Well, did she like the guinea pig? Was she scared?" and we ask leading questions for more information. I suggest you do this with your children to see what they are learning in Spanish as well.

Young children - as a general rule - do not approach learning foreign language the way we do as adults. As adults, we go to class and as we get new information, we file it in our brains - comparing it with what we know in English - with the express intent of being able to find it later.

The younger the child, the less s/he is going to use this mental organizational approach. Children learn in the moment, hands on, during meaningful and motivating experiences. In our classes, they are hearing and using Spanish constantly. The younger the child, the fewer active, mental comparisons they are making between English and Spanish. They are simply recognizing what works and using it. In addition, we put a lot of emphasis on empowering children with useful phrases, and not only isolated vocabulary words (I want xyz please, Where is xyz?, Here's the xyz, It's big/small, etc)... Phrases that children can drop vocabulary into as they learn it. We focus on speaking the language, versus memorizing it.

Because our approach to teaching is rather seamless (that is, our activities incorporate Spanish as a natural part of participation), students sometimes aren't overtly aware of how much Spanish they are actually using. True story: I had an 8yr old girl in a class and she was an extremely quick learner, retained information well, and was a leader in the class. One day, about halfway through the semester, she said "I love this class! Last year, we took Spanish with this guy, and he made you like - learn things. Like you had to learn words and then weeks later you'd have to remember them. In this class, you don't even have to like, learn!"

Ha! I was half-insulted at first, but quickly realized that this gal, who was the most advanced in the class, wasn't entirely aware of all that she was learning and using! It surprised even me, because I could often see her gears turning, trying to use her Spanish is a variety of ways. But with the natural incorporation of language into our games, in addition to using our visual cues, etc. it can truly be "seamless" learning.

That aside, it does take a certain amount of the cup filling up and then spilling over before children will use new language outside of class. In class, being in the same place, at the same time, with the same teacher, and with similar materials all help put them in "Spanish mode" and subconsciously activates that part in their brain where their Spanish is. The younger the child, the more s/he will rely on this context to find and activate the Spanish s/he has in her brain.


If you want to know specifics, you kinda have to 1) be realistic about what to expect, and 2) get specific with your questions. In our classes, we provide parents with lesson summaries that detail what words, phrases, books, and activities the children do in class. I would suggest asking questions like: "Did you read a book today? -- was it Title A or Title B?" or "It says here you did something with frogs & a parachute. What was that?" If you aren't looking at a lesson plan, ask "Did you like the games in Spanish today? The unit is about animals. What animal toys did you play with?" This may help your child focus their thoughts and remind her of the lesson.

Try to remember this as well... Recall on-demand, is not necessarily the most valid sign of learning or your child's functional ability to use the language. That is, being able or unable to pluck a vocabulary word out of the "Spanish area" of our brain doesn't indicate our ability to use it for a useful purpose when the occasion arises.

Getting the "nothing" answer can be so frustrating (especially for us teachers who know and see that they truly are learning)! But be patient and understanding of the many cognitive demands your child is sorting through each day. Little by little, you WILL see Spanish come out around the house and the like.

Is your child using Spanish outside the classroom setting? Things to look for...
(click above!)


27 October 2009


Today, I taught a small group of five elementary school girls at The Madeleine School. We gathered in the room and the girls got out their pre-lesson snacks. While they ate, they updated me on their day at school, whose birthday it was, the Halloween candy their teacher had given them, etc.

All of a sudden, the following conversation took off with no input or participation on my part. To follow, you may need to know that

Hay = There is/There are

No hay = There isn't/there aren't

(holding out an empty container) Look! No hay strawberries!

But hay strawberries in my mouth!
(laughter all around)

Amelia: Well, hay strawberries in your belly!

No hay snack! (referencing the fact that she had no snack today)

Hay strawberries in my belly now!

(holding up an almond) No hay más snack! (and pops the almond into her mouth)

I was scribbling this all down, of course!
I tell you, this is the stuff the truly makes my day. To see Spanish come out naturally and with such excitement! They were laughing and so easily using hay/no hay. Almost racing to be the next to say something with their Spanish. It was delightful to see!