The story of language, 1: Signs

by Wolf Pascoe on December 5, 2010

Part 1 in a  five part series.

Read: Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

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The greatest thing a human being ever does is to see something and tell what he sees in plain way.

— John Ruskin

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Nick was a normal baby, giving no hint of his later speech difficulties. When he was around six months old, we began teaching him sign language. I had read an article saying that babies had the capacity to sign at an early age, long before they could talk. Why not teach them to use their hands to ask for what they wanted, eliminating months of frustration before speech kicked in?

Made sense to me.

I got a book on American Sign Language, but we soon abandoned it. Nick wanted to make up his own signs. He would be teaching us. By the time he was a year old, he could tell us when he was hungry, when he wanted more, where he wanted to go. We knew things were really clicking one day when he made his sign for “diaper change” to signal that he wanted to make a change in plans.

He began to string signs together to tell us stories. Where’s the cat? Can we go out tonight and eat at the restaurant?

Nick’s hearing was fine (we had it checked.) He understood what we said to him. And we could understand him. This was a kid who loved telling stories. We couldn’t wait for actual speech to kick in.

But it didn’t.

When Nick was two, he could say Ma and Da. That was pretty much it. Of course, he could sign.

“I see no reason to rush this,” our pediatrician said. “Let’s wait until he’s three and look at it again.”

So we watched and waited while the kids in Nick’s Mommy group began speaking in sentences and ignoring Nick. They had no patience for his signs.

By the time he was three, Nick could spin out ten-minute narratives in signs, but Nora and I were the only ones who understood them. I counted the number of words he could actually say out loud: there were six.

Our pediatrician gave us a recommendation for a speech therapist. We brought Nick to her office for an evaluation.

Her room was full of games and toys. She sat down at a table with Nick and they started playing. She gave Nick a ball, pointed to her mouth as she spoke the word. Nick made the sign.

“Oh, you’d rather sign,” she said.

She showed Nick how to form the word.

“Beh,” he said.

Later our questions tumbled out.

“Is he not talking because we taught him to sign?” we said, “Is the whole thing our fault?”

“It’s good that he signs,” she said. “He’s not talking because he has apraxia. The words form in his brain. Usually there’s a six lane highway from the speech center to the muscles of the mouth and tongue. In Nick’s case there’s a dirt road.”

“Should we have brought him in sooner?”

“He wouldn’t have been ready sooner. This is a perfect time.”

And finally, “But he will learn to talk, won’t he?”

“Yes, he’ll talk.”

“When?”

“Soon. Very soon.”

. . .

to be continued . . .

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You might also enjoy these two short videos from Dad Labs:

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Sign language for babies I

Sign language for babies II

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