Language Strategy: Sign Language

While in our dreaming phase (a.k.a. pregnancy) about how we would make bilingual lenguaje development a priority for Guapa, a common story Tico and I would hear about other bilingüe families is that the children’s language development was delayed while being exposed simultaneously to the two languages. Some families had even given up on teaching their children the second language, which felt super discouraging in our dream phase!

I’ve always been one to overanalyze… so this was a perfect storm of overanalysis brewing. Of course I didn’t have a complete window into these families’ experiencia of language development, so my analisis was very limited (So much for overanalysis, ha!). Instead of focusing on all the detalles I did not know, I turned my attention to how I could (try to) prevent good intentions from turning into giving up.

At this point, I had already taught 4th, 5th, and 6th grade for 7 años, and 5 of those years were in bilingual or dual language classrooms. I knew about language acquisition. I had watched it unfold before my very ojos, both in simultaneous* and sequential** learners. I had also watched several students continually flounder as they tried to make sense of the second lenguaje in front of them.

*Simultaneous language learner: someone learning two languages at the same time. Language abilities are generally at the same level in both.

**Sequential language learner: someone who learned one language really well before learning their second. Language abilities are really strong in one language and become stronger in the second language with time.

So my question remained: How can I prevent a language flop in my own child? (Time will tell if I have been proactive in the right ways! Stay tuned!)

One of my favorite vocabulary teaching strategies is commonly referred to as TPR (bienvenidos to the teacher world of acronyms…), which stands for Total Physical Response. In other words, make up gestos for the words the students need to learn and use these gestures regularly as a reference for the words’ meanings.

I remember a specific Social Studies unit in español about how the economy works. Economy units are generally pretty vocabulary intensive: Salario, compañía, ganancia, inversionista, servicios y bienes, producto, consumidor, etc. What helped students remember the vocabulary was my animated delivery of instruction? Nope. The colorful pictures to go with each term? Maybe. The gestos acting out each new word? Definitely.

TPR has also been a great strategy to use in math class. Geometry is another vocabulary intensive unit, and generally our TPR experience turns into a Simon Says game.

“Simon Says show me a line segment!”

“Simon Says show me an acute angle!”

“Show me a line!” ….. “Gotcha!”

You get the idea.

So knowing as a teacher that gestures help students with new vocabulary, I made the mommy connection to use (drumroll please……..) sign language!! Gestures already made up for me to use with my baby?! Perfect!

Sign language is certainly not just for bilingual situations. All children can benefit from it! So began my hunt for a good sign language, kid friendly resource…

Of course, I turned to YouTube and Google, my two best resource friends.

Google introduced me to this book:

I found the drawings to be very cute and helpful —

While I agreed with everything the book said and was eager to begin the sign language learning process with Guapa, I felt like all the pressure was on me. I mean, the ultimate goal was to teach Guapa Spanish, and here I was trying to acquire a third language to introduce into the mix. I didn’t have time or the willpower to learn 400 señas to then teach and reinforce to my baby. This book is still on my shelf, and now serves as a quick referencia when Guapa needs a sign or two to help with communication.

YouTube introduced me to an Einstein video that taught 8ish different signs (play, help, eat, take a bath, sleep, mommy, daddy…) using lots of visual examples of the vocab as well as several different adults and kids making the signs. I thought this was it! My sign language resource!…

…Until I realized it did only teach 8ish signs. Hmm, my baby was going to need more signs than that…

Then said Einstein video disappeared from YouTube altogether. Something about a copyright law? I was (semi)crushed… So the search continued.

And I honestly don’t remember how we came upon Baby Signing Time, but Rachel Coleman’s video series has become a staple in our lives. Not only does Guapa love watching the 4 DVDs over and over (and over) again, but these videos have also helped us communicate in ways we never thought possible.

Beyond the basics of milk, eat, and more.

Guapa can tell us not only that she wants to eat, but what she wants to eat. Apple. Banana. Yogurt. Grape. Carrot. Tomato. Ice cream.

She can tell us if she’s sleepy. If something hurts and where. If another toddler is her friend. She can ask for help.

She can say please and thank you. She also says she’s sorry occasionally.

She can ask to draw. She can ask for more paper.

She can name all kinds of things when we’re out and about. Tree. Flower. Grass. Bug. Train. Bike. Car. Bus. Book. Ball. Baby. Dog. Cat. Horse. Frog. Fish.

Like I said, before considering sign language as a development strategy, I never thought understanding my toddler was possible. (And okay, maybe it’s a little bit of a brag moment, ha! My baby is learning so much!)

Check this amazing company out! The more I learn about them, the more I am in awe.

The only con… Everything is in English, so now that Guapa practically has each episode memorized, she’s basically memorizado a lot of English while learning sign language. This isn’t a huge con, though, and because Baby Signing Time has been such a bridge for us in communication, we’re going with it.

In the meantime, we’re sticking to our consistency of answering her always in Spanish. She has little by little been transferring sign language gestures with actual words. It’s funny when we say, “¡No lo toques! ¡Está caliente!” and she does the sign for “hot” and has started to say in English, “Hot!” Or we say, “¡Mira al perro!” to which she says oh-so-clearly, “Doggy!”

Yup, she’s absorbing two (well, three?) languages at the same time.

And this is why we are a Spanglish family.

P.S. What I didn’t know then but have learned along the way is that there is English sign language and Spanish sign language and these too are completely different languages just like spoken English and Spanish. Guapa is learning ASL — American Sign Language — before I knew there was a difference. I guess we could be bilingual in sign language too?! I think we’ll stick with just one… ??? !!!

2 thoughts on “Language Strategy: Sign Language

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