The Signing Series, Part 1: Why I am Teaching my Baby Sign Language
Updated: Apr 17
From a young age, I have been fascinated with languages. As a teenager, I remember my French teacher telling our class she was having a baby. Someone asked if the baby would speak French or English. She told us that she planned to speak to the baby in French and her husband in English, so the baby would grow up with two languages. This blew my mind. There I was struggling to learn French from a textbook, and this baby would grow up just knowing it. How cool was that!
Later, when studying my degree, we were allowed to take a bonus two modules in a totally different area of study. This is where I was introduced to British Sign Language (BSL). Over the course of these two modules, I learnt signs (vocabulary), the grammatical structure of BSL, and most importantly about Deaf culture. Apart from the scary exams (that involved being filmed, eek!), I absolutely loved it. It was so great to be able to converse with Deaf people. Dare I say, I got pretty good at BSL. Nowhere near fluent, but enough to hold a basic, slow conversation. Myself and a couple of classmates would meet and chat purely through BSL, which was great practice. It's a beautiful language - I love that it is so expressive and direct. The hard part was keeping it up when using it so infrequently. A few years ago I took an evening class to refresh myself. I also found the lovely Deaf YouTuber Jazzy Whipps and have been watching her videos for years. I would watch with captions then again without and follow the signs knowing the overall message. I have since found myself a big fan of her channel! I will put a link at the end of the post for anyone who is interested.
I have on multiple occasions in the many years since my university days, used my (increasingly rusty) BSL. Each time I have been really glad I spent time learning this language. Seeing the generally delighted responses of those I was signing with was great. I personally think BSL should be taught more widely from a young age. Deaf people are so frequently excluded from full access to society. We teach languages for use overseas, but don't teach BSL used within the UK where we are far more likely to use it?
So when I got pregnant, I was immediately keen to teach my baby BSL. I wanted baby to have two languages, and how amazing would it be if we had a future where hearing and Deaf people could communicate with ease? Little known to me until that point, it turns out that teaching babies to sign basic words, known as "baby sign", is actually a popular activity amongst new parents.
I should stress here, that "baby sign" is generally based around Makaton. This is not the same as BSL. Makaton is more basic in that it is used to support spoken language (a fantastic tool for people with learning difficulties or communication difficulties), and does not carry the grammatical structure of BSL, to name just a couple of the key differences.
Baby sign language, based on Makaton, allows infants to communicate before their speech has developed. This (apparently, I'm not there yet!) helps avoid the frustrating moments of not knowing what the baby wants/needs. It is also said to have benefits on baby's language development and other key skills. Usually you can find local "sing and sign" type classes, but Covid has put a spanner in the works with that. I believe some companies are running zoom sessions (if you know of any please leave details in the comments for others to see).
With my baby almost 6 months now, I have started signing certain words in the hope baby will pick this up. We bought some basic sign cards and my husband has been learning these to sign to baby too. One piece of advice I require (in case anyone is reading this who actually knows about it!) is how to develop basic baby signs/Makaton into full BSL. For now, it's all about vocabulary, so perhaps once baby develops spoken sentences I will try to introduce some BSL sentences.
If you're interested in learning BSL yourself, there are plenty of courses online, although I found face to face to be best (but again with Covid who knows when they will resume). I will add that for many reasons I would highly recommend finding a class with a Deaf teacher - I have found this to be the case with most evening classes anyway (again, if you know of any face to face or online classes, please comment below).
This is just the start of me and baby's signing journey, and I will be sure to update the blog with our progress.
Are you interested in or have you already started learning to sign with your baby? Let me know in the comments below!
YouTuber Jazzy Whipps: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfaz727ukS3eFYNLysA9rRw