I have always been fascinated with sign language already as a child, so when I first told my husband about Baby Sign Language while I was pregnant for the first time, he was not as enthusiastic as I had hoped. „It’s too alternative“ he claimed. What?! I wanted to push the subject but I imagined him frantically waving around his large hands attempting to untangle his fingers in order to sign an expression to a restless unhappy baby. Not a pretty thought, so I decided against it. Given that we both knew nothing yet about parenting, I instead resorted to „Let’s see if baby also disagrees“.
But it did not stop me from reopening my old books and notes in ASL and FSL (American and Filipino Sign Language) that I had collected over the years from the few lessons I had attended in highschool and later on in courses in Manila. I had read an article long ago that sign language was also useful to teach to young children to help in language development. Because babies develop their motor skills before their language skills, when they are able to associate simple expressions like „milk“ and „eat“ to important needs like „thirst“ and „hunger“, they are able to communicate their needs early on, even before they are able to speak. This understandably led to less frustrated children and even claimed that they were also less likely to throw tantrums. So of course I definitely wanted to give it a try on our baby. I proceeded to buying a set of flash cards and books catered especially for learning baby sign language based on ASL. I started practicing the signs on my own and soon my husband started getting curious too.
Fastforward a few months later, and I found my husband using the first basic signs for „more“, „water“ & „finished“ while speaking to our 6 months old son during a meal.
The simple act of giving „more“ food was celebrated when our son managed a faint semblance of the sign, even if only accidentally, when he would clap his hands (the sign is similar to clapping fists together). And when his eyes would follow our gesture for „water“ (tipping the letter „w“ to the mouth as if to drink from the forefinger) while he was busy squirming and complaining in his seat, we were telling him „this is water“ without having to raise our voices to compete with his. And when he finished his plate, we gave him a big smile, applauding in sign language by holding up the hands and rotating back and forth excitedly, and exclaim „finished!“ while signing (showing an open palm and turning it down). This was clearly the best entertainment of the meal, as he would present us with such a gleeful two-tooth grin, it was obvious he too was having fun!
This marked the beginning of our family journey to signing to our children before their first word. And because we knew early on that we wanted to raise our children bilingual, paired with sign language, we soon realised that it worked like the bridge language between the two. When I would sign „water“ and say „tubig“ my husband would sign „water“ but say „Wasser“ instead. Adding consistency and an overall sense of playfulness, the challenge to speaking to our son in two different tongues became less daunting and more like playing dancing hands.
One afternoon, after spending a day with his grandmother, she asked us what our son meant when he would clap his fists. „More“ he was signing during mealtimes but „shoes“ while his shoes were being put on. After that she was hooked too, trying to decode his baby gestures whenever he showed her a sign with his hands and waited expectantly for a reaction. The enthusiasm spread to other relatives and even to his babysitter and the staff at his daycare because they too noticed that he was signing to them. And so they learned a few signs, but it was usually enough that they understood and responded. And everyone was happy. Soon we started inventing our own signs when we failed to find it in the books or notes that we had, like the sign for „meat“ and „rice“ and „music“. Our son in turn, was always ecstatic to use the signs he needed, official or invented, to tell us what he wanted.
By eighteen months, he had a building vocabulary of 50+ words of sign and spoken words and kept growing them at a relentless pace. He was signing intentionally and consistently, sometimes pairing his signs with appropriate noises like „meow“ for cat or words like „gatas“ for milk. By the time he turned two, we slowly started signing less and less as he continued to speak clearer and better. And to our delight, by the time he turned 3, and we were soon expecting our second son, he was also speaking fluently in both his „mothertongue“ and his „fathertongue“. in the wake of our second sons arrival, it was a relief to realize I would no longer need to struggle to make myself understood to my first born.
Now half a year later and our second boy is 6 months old. My husband says rhetorically, „You’ll start signing with him as well, right?“ Well no worries there, the other day, I found our three year old reading and signing a boardbook to his baby brother in the playpen, what a wonderful sight! So I guess being „too alternative“ isn’t all that bad afterall.
A version of this article appears on The Asian Parent Online Magazine published on December 27, 2015.