Sign language is a handy way to understand baby talk

Why some parents in France are learning sign-language so they can communicate with their children earlier

19 October 2016
By Samantha David

SOME parents in France are communicating with children as young as eight months using sign language.

Its advocates say it allows parents to understand their children better, and prevents frustration because babies are able to communicate their needs more clearly at a younger age.

The idea was developed in the US during the 80s as part of a 'hot-housing' approach to child-rearing, and popularised by Joseph Garcia in his book Sign with your Baby.

Following the publication 10 years ago of Signe avec Moi by Nathanaëlle Bouhier-Charles and Monica Companys, the method has been gaining traction in France and has exploded in popularity in the last two years.

Nicole Farges, a psychologist working at the Institut National des Jeunes Sourds (INJS) in Paris, has extensive experience with deaf children and says that using sign language with hearing babies can be very positive. "People always ask me about frustration. They worry that if a child can be understood using sign language, they might not bother to learn to speak, or might be slow in learning to speak, but this is not the case."

She says parents ask if frustration isn't part of a child's natural development, and points out that even without the frustration of not being able to communicate, babies are frustrated by not getting what they want. "If a baby signs the word 'biscuit' but the mother doesn't agree that it's time for a biscuit, that's the frustration, right there!" she said. "And, obviously, parents and babies don't always agree on the right time to eat biscuits, or whatever."

Around nine months is the average age at which babies start to use gestures alongside noises and facial expressions to communicate, the most usual first gesture being pointing at something.

Ms Farges says that learning to sign simply avoids misunderstanding on both sides. It doesn't delay the acquisition of speech, it just allows children to communicate simple needs from the age of around nine months instead of around 15 to 18 months. "They don't learn to sign long, complicated sentences," she said. "They just learn to sign simple words and responses to questions."

The vocabulary typically learned includes nouns like 'cat', 'dog', 'milk' and biscuit' along with emotions like 'sad', 'frightened' and 'happy'.

Parents say it also gives clues to a child's preoccupations. A child might point at the sky while signing the words for fish and water. Another might gaze out of the window and sign words for tree and sadness. It demonstrates that even very young babies are capable of abstract ideas.

Many parents develop an intimate understanding of their child and know from facial expressions and body language what their child wants long before they develop speech. So the question arises of whether using sign language could circumnavigate this intimacy, making effective communication possible without the need for an intimate personal relationship. "Signing doesn't replace the bond between a child and its main carer," said Ms Farges. "It simply gives a young child more tools to communicate."

Fans of the method compare signing to crawling - both are intermediate stages rather than ends in themselves. In the same way that once a crawling baby can walk, they stop crawling, most babies stop signing once they can speak.

She also points out that babies who sign, who can respond when spoken to, are perceived differently from babies who cannot respond when spoken to. It gives them a say within the family unit, and makes carers take their wishes into account more often.

To parents who worry that teaching babies sign language might be immersing them in formal lessons at too young an age, she says that sign language can only be learned by immersion, not through formal lessons. If carers use sign language when speaking, the child will just naturally pick up the signs for various words. This also means that signs are not used to replace spoken words, they are just used alongside them. "Using sign language helps children learn to speak," says Ms Farges.

"It can give non-verbal children a way to communicate that is vital to their development," she says. "It can be a lifeline."

Joseph Garcia went even further in his original research on the subject, saying that in his opinion, children who learned to sign also learned to speak earlier than their non-signing friends. More recent opinions however, hold that baby signing neither accelerates nor retards the development of speech.

To find out more about using sign language with babies, see www.languedessignesbebe.com, www.signeavecmoi.com (both in French) and www.babysigns.com (in English).

French sign language, Langue des Signes Française (LSF) is one of the oldest documented sign languages in the world, dating back to the 1600s. In the early 1760s, Charles Michael de l'Epée established the world's first school for deaf people, in Paris, thus proving that deaf people could think and reason, contrary to popular opinion of the time. Today it is estimated that 50-100,000 people in France use LSF to communicate.

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