This is the story of how I got started teaching music and sign classes to parents, babies, and toddlers. When I became a parent, I used music and sign language as a means to introduce my baby to French and other languages. It was so fun and effective that I began teaching parent-baby classes out of my house and in the years since have taught classes in multiple cities. Depending on where I hold the classes, we may call the classes something different but ultimately the hour is the same: we incorporate motor activities, sensory play and early literacy. Nobody is forced to sing, sign, sit or “pay attention in class.” They are babies! Babies come, absorb, play, socialize or possibly nurse the whole time and just absorb the music. Caregivers relax, connect with others and learn a little something to bring home.
My daughter’s first introduction to music and sign together was the song Apples and Bananas. The signs for that song are I, Like, Eat, Apple and Banana. Quickly she wanted to learn some signs for Savez Vous Plantez Le Choux (Do you know how to plant a cabbage?). The signs for that silly song are Know, How, Plant, Cabbage, carrot, tomato, corn, arm, leg, foot and head. As a songwriter I recognized the need to write songs about wanting other foods, songs with signs about covering your sneeze, songs about emotional literacy, asking for what you need, and the topics in gentle discipline. It sure wasn’t easy at first for me to figure out how to play guitar, sing and use my hands to sign!
I realized that having multiple languages including ASL allowed more communication opportunities for a tiny person because sometimes signs were easier than words and sometimes French was easier than English. For instance, Iris knew the sign for water but could not say it. Then at thirteen months, she heard the word for water in French, “Eau” (pronounced “O”) one time and glommed onto it with might so that it was the word for water which always went with the sign. It was easier to say and only at 18 months has she just begun to say “water”. How awesome it was for both of us to have multiple communication options!
We still sign to each other in loud and crowded rooms, and she can sign a bit to one deaf child friend. When one of us has a sore throat, we sign. English and French both become more proficient and she became very interested in Spanish and Hebrew which we are both working on now at 4.5 years. She has retained words, songs, and signs from years ago even if we haven’t practiced them.
The children and parents in my classes each week get a whole new set of signs for a couple of new songs to keep those new neural pathways open and flowing!
We learn just enough to remember. I know that a 2 hour ASL workshop for parents is sometimes too much for the sleep deprived parents brain to absorb and then teach, and that was one of the inspirations for the weekly hour-long multi-sensory class. When we learn songs and languages while using hands, bodies, music, and sensory play we are using multiple parts of the brain which make it much easier to remember what we learn.
I don’t worry that my students don’t know perfect ASL grammar (they are babies, and even my grammar isn’t fluent yet!) or that they aren’t immersed in just one or two languages (sometimes the family hasn’t chosen a second language yet). The brain research shows that exposure to multiple languages before 1 year of age and definitely before 2 will help babies more easily acquire any language they choose later in life. I was inspired by a Bristol University study that showed that it is all about learning multiple kinds of world languages- so that the brain will more easily be able to distinguish between vastly different kinds of sounds. Another study from the University of Washington showed that it is advantageous to have even minimal exposure to Mandarin than for the infant brain to never hear Mandarin in infancy.
Because of sign and song, my daughter at 18 months knew most of her numbers, colors, animals, vegetables, fruits and vehicles in both French and English. Because of songs and sign, our learning experiences were fun and not forced, experiential, incorporated into play, and often very child-led. In my classes I try to let the families lead a bit by telling me what the children are interested in, what languages the families speak or want to learn, what communication or gentle discipline challenges they are having.
My experience with songs and signs as a mom and as a teacher have changed forever how I feel about what babies are capable of and what they might be interested in. Not all babies need or want the stimulation of language and sign classes but many do. Not all parents are interested in having baby learn any signs- they come for the social interaction . When I first started doing art projects at 13 months with my daughter, parents of her friends the same age were astounded that their children that age would be capable of or interested in art play, and they were always thrilled to participate. I have child development and psychology degrees and I’m still learning that their minds are more developed, more intricate and capable than I can even fathom. If we don’t provide the opportunity, we never know.
Learning begins at birth. I feel that we can simply give unique opportunities for learning, refrain from any forcing or anxiety about timing, simply observe and watch the wheels turn- let them teach us who they are.
Moorea at www.SavvyParentingSupport.com
I currently teach at The Nest at Beth El Berkeley and soon will be teaching at the new Then Comes Baby, Oakland.
P.S. Are you worried that your baby will be slow to learn English if they learn another language or ASL signs? Read THIS and you’ll learn that what you often hear about bilingual children having slowed language expression is not true, according to the actual research. Similarly, children who sign are not prone to verbal language delay as you may have heard. All children pick up language at a different age- I think that sometimes a child who might have always had a later verbal acquisition naturally, might have had people blame it on his proficiency with signs or on bilingualism.
Please don’t use “baby sign” programs on the TV or IPad, as screen time is not recommended under age 2. Flash cards are also the very least effective way for babies to learn. Make sure you are learning actual American Sign Language (or the sign language of your own part of the world). There are variations and dialects of ASL, but “baby sign” is not one of them and it is not a useful language in any way. It is appropriated from ASL in a way that some consider disrespectful and should your child continue wanting to sign, “baby sign” only goes a very short distance. If certain signs are hard, use them anyway and babies will come up with their own version based on what their hands are capable of.