Baby talk: Sign language may help babies learn to speak

By Alex Soloducha
September 20, 2015 - 12:01pm

Naomi Buchanan’s son had two first words: the first word he signed and the first word he spoke.

When he was just one, he already knew 100 words in sign language. Ironically, the first time he signed it was the word ‘hat’. Verbally, the word ‘dad’ followed after.

Buchanan said this form of communication has been a great addition to their lives.

“We love it,” said Buchanan. “We use sign language with both of our kids.”

The Buchanans now have two children, their two-year-old son Archer and a nine-month-old daughter named Langley.

“With our son, it alleviated a lot of stress for us, trying to figure out what he wanted because he could just tell us with his hands,” she said. “So he could tell us that he wanted to call his grandparents on Skype. He could tell us that he wanted more food and what he wanted for food.”

She said this even prevented temper tantrums. If they were in the grocery store, their son could sign that he was hungry or tired, instead of having to get upset to let them know.

“We really enjoyed having sign language as part of our lives and we still use it,” even though both children are full hearing, she said.

Buchanan isn’t new to this form of communication. Her first language was sign language. When she was born, her father was taking classes to be a sign-language interpreter, which later became his occupation.

“He was teaching me as he was learning, so it’s been a part of my life for a long time,” she said.

Later, when she and her husband decided to have kids, they realized traditional communication between parents and babies tends to be a one-way street, since young children aren’t able to produce words right away.

“We just thought, how amazing would it be if they were able to communicate with us,” she said. “The Little Buttons program offers the ability to do that.”

The Little Buttons program, started in Moose Jaw, is put on by Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (SDHHS). The ASL classes are open to new-born babies and children up to five years old.

After success in Moose Jaw, the program is expanding and will be offering classes in Saskatoon and Prince Albert this fall.

For parents like Buchanan, the classes were a convenience, but it’s also an important service for those who need it. 

Buchanan said they learned first hand how important child-hearing screening can be and encourages every new parent to get informed.

“My sister actually has a little boy who failed the screening, so they were able to start signing with him right away,” she said.

Now, Buchanan’s children are able to communicate with their older cousin using sign language.

Archer has also used his knowledge to help teach his younger sister. Buchanan said when she brings a meal to the table, Archer excitedly shows Langley the sign for each item.

“It’s a really exciting thing to see already there is a passion for learning and teaching in a two-and-a-half-year-old,” said Buchanan.

She insists this new form of communication actually helps children learn to speak sooner.

“It didn’t delay any speech acquisition whatsoever,” she explained of her son Archer. “When he started talking, all of the words that he signed were the words that he started speaking.”

She said, if he didn’t know how to say something verbally, he would sign it.

“He would supplement his speech with signing, which is pretty great actually because you can have a conversation with your child,” said Buchanan.

Her nephew also had impressive learning developments early on, which showed when he would sign to his mother.

“He was telling her the differences between the Cretaceous Period and the Jurassic Period before he was two,” said Buchanan. “So it definitely puts them a step ahead linguistically and cognitively and if you have the chance to teach your kids to sign before they can speak you should do it.”

Sue Schmid, organizer and instructor of the program, also learned sign language as her first language because both her parents are deaf. She said signing is all about building connections between parents and children.

“Because they can produce sign and understand sign much quicker than they can understand spoken English, kids before they're one can tell you they want more, or milk or they want to eat, whereas they aren’t able to articulate [that] until about two-ish,” explaind Schmid.

The program is based on Baby Signing Time, a curriculum out of the United States.

Music is incorporated with learning basic signing to make it fun for children of all ages.

“It’s near and dear to me because my parents are deaf...I just think it’s so important,” said Schmid.

At an early age, she made sure her children could sign so they could communicate with their grandparents.

“It was crucial because for me to have kids being able to communicate with their grandparents is so meaningful,” she said.

In Prince Albert, Little Buttons ASL classes will start up on Oct. 19 and will run every Monday until Dec. 7.

Two months of weekly classes will be offered for $125.

They plan on having two class-time options, one from 9:30 a.m. until 10:15 a.m. and the other at 6:15 until 7 p.m., depending on popularity. There will be limited availability and there must be a minimum of six children per class.

With files from Nigel Maxwell and Khang Nguyen

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On Twitter: @alex_soloducha

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