“Body Language is a very powerful tool. We had body language before we had speech, and apparently, 80% of what you understand in a conversation is read through the body, not words.”
– Deborah Bull
Last week, America’s renown gorilla by the name Koko died at the age of 46 on June 19. Koko’s death went viral in the news and social media, which was where I first learned about her death. Now many of you may be wondering, “why is Koko even significant?” Well, shes more than significant. She changed the world’s understanding of how animals CAN communicate feelings and even ideas. Let me pause and give you a few seconds to process what I just said, animals communicate feelings–something people have argued for decades saying only humans exhibit.
Now your next question may fall along the lines, “how did Koko do it?” and it may surprise you. Koko communicated her needs, wants, ideas, and emotions using American Sign Language (ASL). Yes, she used sign language. You know the ones our very own kind use. Some of you may even be familiar to sign language or may have mastered it. Does the diagram below of the alphabet look familiar?
Koko learned and used over 1000 sign language and even demonstrated understanding of over 2000 spoken English words. You cannot tell me that is not fascinating because its beyond belief. Now I won’t go much into details about the entire research on Koko but I would encourage you to do so because Koko’s achievement supports my argument on why you should teach your infant American Sign Language.
HOW I STARTED TEACHING MY INFANT ASL
When I became a mother, one of the first thing I learned immediately was the importance of establishing a form of communication with my newborn. This was essential because clearly telling him things like “shh”, “it’s ok”, “oh, don’t cry”, “are you hungry”, “what’s wrong”, etc. did not work. I was discouraged during the first month of my son’s life because he went ballistic whenever I held him. Even at the age of seven months, it was still a mystery trying to code the different cries to hunger, frustration, tired, diaper change, etc. I knew there had to be an effective way for both of us to communicate despite the current language barrier.
It was at Barnes & Noble – Heaven on Earth – that I discovered my first book on infant sign language. After that discovery, I went on a journey to collecting more and more resources on infant ASL. I will promise you that this discovery changed everything about communication for me and my son. The first sign he learned was “milk.” At the age of 10 months, my son was able to sign for his bottle whenever he was hungry. From that moment, my son went on and learned how to sign eat, sleep, book, scared, bath, all done, potty, etc. He learned a little under 20 signs and I will admit that if I were more dedicated my son would have mastered many of the signs. Although we did not learn as many signs as I would like for us to, the experience itself improved our communication. My oldest was never much of a crier but learning ASL made crying similar to having a blue moon.
So, what are the benefits? Before I share what I gained from this experience I will say it does not take a day, a week, or even a month for your child to understand what you’re trying to do. However, persistence and consistency are keys to being successful. You need to always be on top of your game in order for your child to understand you are trying to communicate with him/her. Now lets move onto the benefits of teaching your infant ASL. There are many scientifically proven benefits to teaching your infant ASL and many which I’ve experienced myself including my son. However, I will try to sum up the benefits I’ve experienced in three simple ones, hoping it will convince you to consider teaching your infant ASL or start your own research on the subject.
BENEFITS OF INFANT ASL
ONE. It is an amazing and rewarding feeling as a mother to see your child communicate his needs without crying! This is a very simple benefit from teaching ASL. I don’t know about you all, but when my child cries frantically and I just can’t figure out what it is he wants, I become anxious. ASL helps lower the level of frustration from your child because he is able to tell you what he needs. As parents, we know a child who does not get what he or she wants is a child who is going to wreak havoc. You are less likely to experience frustration and deescalate a situation when you’ve developed an understanding of what your child is trying to communicate to you. This is important not only for when they are under a year old but when they become older. A child who is calm, who has his emotions under control is a child who will excel in learning.
TWO. Potty training was a piece of cake! At 18 months, my son learned how to use the potty. He learned to sign for whenever he needed to go to the bathroom. Now, I’m not saying the benefit is you will succeed at potty training on the first try. What I am saying is your child has a jump start at understanding how language works. Imagine a six month old–the earliest an infant can learn to sign–who cannot decipher the words you are saying or understand why you are mumbling a bunch of gibberish. Now imagine this six month old magically understanding that the word “milk” or “bottle” communicates feeding time. What you’ve just imagined is a small glimpse at what ASL can do for your child. His understanding of language will grow faster than an infant who is not exposed to ASL. He will learn when I say “bottle” there is a meaning to it and the meaning is feeding time. He will learn when he is sad and signs the sign for it, his mother will comfort him. This is beneficial to your baby as he grows into a toddler. He will continue to communicate his needs and soon those signs of communication will become verbal. His vocabulary will develop faster and a child who can convey his needs in full sentences is a happy child.
THREE. Turn to your child and ask him or her to form the letter R using the alphabet sign language diagram above. Was he or she successful? Try another letter! As babies grow up, there are important skills they need to master and those skills fall under two categories: gross motor and fine motor skills. There are many activities out there in which we can engage our infants with to help them with basic fine motor skills such as holding their bottles to eventually changing out of their own clothes. ASL is one of the many activities, an effective one, that will help increase your child’s fine motor skills. If they can manipulate their hands–even their fingers–as early as six months, they will do a fantastic job when its time to hold their own bottles, hold their own spoons, discard their own diapers, putting on their socks, taking off their shoes, etc. A child who can independently complete a task is a child who will be successful as an adult. Why not start him as early as just a few months old?
There you go! Basic yet fundamental reasons to introduce your infant to ASL. If you are interested in learning more benefits, the list below were composed by parents who have taught ASL themselves.
- Increase in confidence
- Increased interest in books
- Develop understanding of emotions
- Increase vocabulary
- Higher IQ
You get to decide whether it is an experience you want to introduce into both your child’s and families’ lives because to be successful you absolutely need to be consistent and persistent. You must receive support from your significant other as well as your family members. If they also communicate to your child using the signs you’ve established, success will be in your favor.
TIPS FOR TEACHING ASL
I mentioned earlier it is not going to be an easy task. During the first week, you may try to talk yourself into forgetting about it. You may hear all these negative thoughts saying you must have been crazy to believe your child can use his tiny fingers and manipulate such gestures. You’re wrong! You aren’t crazy and it’s possible. You just need to be patient because your baby is quietly observing and figuring in his little brain how he’s going to move those fingers and hands.
This one is vital. Despite you being the most patient person in the world, you will not see the silver lining if your effort is not consistent. Being consistent must be agreed upon between anyone who sees your child for up to eight hours a day. I understand it can be difficult because sometimes some people just aren’t team players, but you have to believe this is your child you are raising. Even without support, you must remain consistent.
Do not believe using sign language alone will be successful. Remember your child does not yet understand what it means when you say “Are you hungry? Do you want milk?”. So what you will need to do is to become the greatest at multitasking. When communicating to your child, sign for bottle, hold the bottle in front of your child, and say out loud “bottle” or “milk”. This will help your baby to understand the word milk associates with the bottle and with the sign language. He may be more successful at asking for his bottle using the sign versus saying milk but in the long run he will learn to say it.
There you go!
ASL is a definite game changer, as you’ve seen with Koko and it is also for our babies. It helped Koko who couldn’t speak understand language and sign what she felt and needed. Have fun at it and give your baby an opportunity to properly express their feelings. Make up your own along the way. We did and it sure made it a lot more fun and easier.
Below are images of my oldest demonstrating basic signs we’ve used when he was only a few months old.
Best of luck,
- Teach Your Baby Sign Language
2. Baby Sign Language Basics
3. Baby Sign Language Dictionary (iPhone App)