Yet An Other 'Secret' Language

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When I was expecting our first child I didn’t really read that many books about expecting and giving birth but one thing I was interested in was language development in children, especially when they were raised in a multilingual home. You see, I was born and raised in Finland, the winner of Newsweek’s 2010 best country to live in. I was going to be speaking Finnish to our children and my wonderfully totally American husband, who after 6 years of marriage knows about 10 words in Finnish, was going to use English.

I was not surprised to read that multilingual boys were the slowest to develop speech. Nor was I surprised when I read that the major cause of baby/toddler frustration, manifested in tantrums that are now way too familiar to me, is the inability to make their thoughts and desires known. I was hoping that somehow there was a way to bypass all this.

I had heard of ‘baby signs’ and properly ordered a book before our first was born. I read it but wasn’t that thrilled. The book was full of signs but it was dry to read and I had no time to study the signs well enough so pretty soon it found its permanent place in a box ‘somewhere out of sight’. Then my SIL let me borrow couple of their Signing Time DVD’s. What a great concept! (You should totally check them out, if you haven’t already.) Suddenly I was exposed to this wonderful new language in a way that was so much fun to learn, both for me and the kids.

Nathan was 10 months when we started watching the DVD’s. It was fascinating to watch him pick up signs so excitedly and effortlessly and then to see him use those signs. I’d offer him a banana and instead of throwing a fit he’d sign ‘grapes’, at the end of the meal, instead of sending his plate and cup flying through the room and adding several minutes to my clean up job, he’d sign ‘all done’. Beth and Joshua got an early start at the precious age of 2 months. When making dinner I’d place them in their bouncy seats in front of TV and all kids happily watched while I cooked.

Out of everyone in the family I believe that Joshua has benefited most from learning American Sign Language (ASL). Ever since being the reason why I ended up with unexpectedly early c-section he’s been our ‘special’ child. He would throw tantrums over anything and everything. He couldn’t figure out sequences (like, first you need to get dressed then you can go outside), he wanted to be held at all times, loud noise would send him over the edge and he didn’t seem to register what we said unless it was signed as well. So sign we did. I borrowed all available ST DVD’s from library, requested them to order the ones they didn’t have, kept them over due and paid enough in fees that it would’ve been cheaper to buy them to our selves from the beginning. But as we all learned more signs, there were fewer tantrums from Joshua and the flow of our days changed from ‘very challenging’ to ‘almost normal’. Quickly signing became his first line of understandable communication and he was rather proficient in it. (He has since learned how to speak clearly and is more than able to make his needs and opinions and desires know .. all too well!)

I noticed that the children started to sign when playing together. First very simple signs but then adding them together to form sentences ‘like pink shoes’, ‘train goes fast’, ‘let’s pretend we’re animals’. They were very good at identifying their feelings and communicating them with us early on, I believe because they associated the signs with (otherwise rather abstract concept of) emotions.

Beth and Joshua turned 3 end of last month. We still sign. I realized at one point that it would be a disservice not to continue with ASL since they already know so many signs. I signed them up for deaf/hearing children’s playgroup and I am taking classes as well. I hope that as they grow and realize that not everyone in the playground uses their hands to communicate they continue to use ASL, because you never know where life leads you and how many opportunities for friendships they might find in the deaf community in years to come. And one day, it could be their other ‘secret’ language. That is if they ever start speaking Finnish. Right now they seem content with understanding Finnish, speaking English and signing back to me. But I won’t loose hope. They just might prove to be more gifted in the area of language than their otherwise pretty awesome Daddy.

So dear HDYDI readers, are you raising your brood in a multilingual home? What challenges have you faced? What benefits are you seeing?  Have you thought about signing?  How are you dealing with potential speech delays/behavior issues with your children?

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5 thoughts on “Yet An Other 'Secret' Language”

  1. Thanks for that lovely post. Our children, almost two now are also in a multilingual home. English, French, and Chinese. We also used signed language. I have only two DVD’s that they started to watch around 6 months of age. They love it. We are not close to proficient in sign language as yours are…but they certainly express a few things using it, and it’s fun. I’m particularly interested in how your children express the abstract concept of emotions though,
    They are saying words in all three languages now and understand all. We are currently going through a phase where they are bursting at the seams with new words. We’ll see how it develops in the next few months and years,

  2. My kids never watched the DVDs, though my husband and I did and we have been signing with our boys since about 6 months old. They will be 2 in November. We are an English-only household, but signing is great since they know way more words in sign language than English at this age, and when Doggie and Daddy sound pretty much the same, there is no confusion because they sign it at the same time. They sign to each other when playing, usually share and thank you, which kills me with cuteness every time. I love to watch them interact. They even make up signs for words we haven’t used signs for, and they both use the sign, it’s amazing to watch. I want them to learn more signs, so maybe we will revisit the videos.

  3. I just posted today about speaking Russian and Serbian to our girls. I can’t say they’re being raised in a “multilingual” home, unfortunately, but at least I hope they’re developing an appreciation that there are different ways to communicate.

    I am also a huge proponent of sign language. Early on, t was helpful for things like “all done” and “sleep”, and it became a source of a lot of fun when the girls were a bit older (starting at 14 months or so). Before they could say much of anything, we could still “read” together, pointing out pictures in books and signing the words. It was an awesome way to interact with them!

    Our girls will be 3 in January, and we still use a few signs. It’s a good time-filler in the doctor’s office…do you remember the sign for “squirrel”? And it’s an easy way to remind them of their manners, when I sign “please” and “thank you” if / when they forget.

  4. We are not a bilingual household, but I checked out some of the Signing Time DVDs at the library on a whim after my boys loved the Baby Einstein signing DVD. They were signing pretty early and I think it also helped develop their verbal skills. They’ve always been ahead of their peers in their language. They are two and a half and absolutely still are in love with “Signing Time with Alex and Leah…” I agree that it is a great way to fill time at doctor’s offices and such. They love to show off the signs they know. I plan to keep exposing them to ASL. I love Hanna’s idea of putting them in a deaf playgroup and taking more classes. I am a strong believer in signing and especially in the Signing Time DVD program.

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