November 14, 2012

Label When You're Able, Part Two

Last week I wrote about signing in context, or labeling. This week I'll expand on that post by addressing some of the most common questions I receive about this topic:

Q "When should I sign a particular word?"

A. Typically the questioner does not mean at what age or stage should a particular word be signed, but rather, when, during the communication interaction, should the word being signed be signed? And this is where I say, relax.  I find that when people ask this sort of question, it is because they are over-thinking or over-stressing about signing.

Think about how naturally we gesture by pointing when we say something like, "It's over there." We don't over-think or over-stress about exactly when to point, we just point as part of our communication interaction.  The same goes for signing. If you are saying to your baby, "It's time for a diaper change," at some point in the conversation, sign diaper or change. You will do enough diaper changes over the course of the weeks and months to come, that your baby will soon get the idea that the sign for change (or diaper) goes along with the experience of getting a clean diaper, and that that sign is different than the one you do before bath time or the one you do when you get a cracker out of the snack bag.

Q. "My hands are usually full when I'm trying to sign with my baby. Is it okay to sign one-handed?"

A. My first answer to this question is, "Yes, it is fine to sign one-handed." I find that the more comfortable and familiar you are with signing (typically because you've been singing and signing regularly), the more naturally you will sign, even when your hands are full.  Just like you might make a one-handed gesture to indicate something was huge, likewise, you can make a one-handed version of a sign for cookie, by making the cookie cutter motion in the air vs. on your inactive hand.

That said, I find that when people say that their hands tend to be full when they are trying to sign with their baby, it's usually because most of the signing is happening during a task time, vs. during a fun, playful time, or during a more relaxed, conversational time. For example, when you are trying to change your own baby's diaper, depending on the baby, that can be very much like a wrestling match. That might not be the most ideal time for you to be chit-chatting and signing about the event!

However, when there is another nearby baby getting their diaper changed, you can easily take the time to talk about that, and add the sign for change or diaper to that conversation (i.e. "That baby is getting her diaper changed, isn't she?")  Likewise, you can make the sign for change when you're reading a book about a baby getting a diaper change, or when you are playing with dolls, and you change the doll's diaper.  All of these interactions are opportunities to sign with your baby, and they are opportunities that occur outside of the experience of changing your own baby's diaper. I find that signing in these non-task contexts builds up your muscle memory for signing, and the next time you have your baby in your arms and you are heading in to do a diaper change, your hands will start to form the sign, somewhat automatically, as you say the words, "Let's get your diaper changed." When you've internalized signing to the point of signing automatically, it seems more natural to join the verbal word with a sign, even if the sign is only being done one-handed.

Q. "What are the best words to start signing?"

A. I encourage people to start by signing words that they suspect their baby most wants to say. By this I mean, if your baby is really into balls, learn the sign for ball and incorporate the sign into your communication.  If your baby loves trains, get to know the sign for train. If you eat a lot peas, and your baby seems to like peas, learn the sign for peas.  To repeat my earlier point, label when you're able, let your words be your guide. Make a point to listen to yourself talk. Listen to the words you say frequently. You will notice that you tend to talk about the things around you, the things you are doing, and the things your baby is interested in.   These are the first words you should learn the signs for and incorporate into your conversations with your baby.

In summary:

Casually provide sign labels throughout the day.  This will get easier and easier as your own sign vocabulary grows.  Learn new signs as you need to through online dictionaries, sign language glossaries, books, videos, and instructional workshops.

Provide sign labels in “real” contexts and during surrogate contexts, such as when you read and play.

Place emphasis on those words you use a lot and those words that hold interest for your baby. Use your natural tendency to provide verbal labels as your guide. 

You can label with signs at any age!  

Next week I'll talk briefly about teaching key focus signs, then I'll move on to a more general forum of common Q and A's.   

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