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Despite living in a country where multiculturalism is encouraged, there are still few resources available to help parents to raise a bilingual child. It can be a struggle for parents because children will often choose to use the English language instead of the native language their parents speak. Without proper resources, the second language is often forgotten. Baby sign language and bilingualism together helps to make the acquisition of a new language easier.
To understand the difficulties that arise when teaching a second language, let me give a brief summary of how our brain processes language.
When learning a language, our brain creates a one to one relationship between a spoken word and a concept/object, and when a second language is introduced, our brain creates a separate relationship between that language and the concept/object. The meaning of the concept/object in the second language is pulled from our experience with our first language and therefore holds less importance to our brain than the word in the first language (Roberto R. Heredia, Center for Research in Language, La Jolla, CA). The problem is that there isn’t a direct connection between the first language and the second. This is where baby sign language comes in to help to bridge the gap between the spoken languages. When one sign is used to represent the meaning of a concept/object, the sign now becomes the reference for both the first language and the second language. It eliminates the brain’s need to translate the word from language one to language two but instead, when we encounter the sign, our brain will associate the languages to the same sign and in turn associate the same meaning to both languages.
When learning a new language, building a large vocabulary is essential to becoming fluent. Marilyn Daniels (Ph.D., New York University), conducted a study to understand the effect of sign language on hearing children’s language development. She found that “Students in prekindergarten classes who receive sign instruction test significantly higher on Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test than students in prekindergarten classes not receiving sign instruction. Their superior scores indicate that simultaneously presenting words visually, kinesically, and orally enhances a child’s vocabulary development”. Not only is this true for the English language, but it holds true for any language the child is exposed to. There are many resources that go into further scientific detail about how sign language facilitates bilingualism or multilingualism. I have referenced several articles at the end of this blog if you are interested in reading more about it.
From my own experiences, I found that baby sign language was very beneficial in teaching my children to embrace and speak both English and Chinese. At an early age, I noticed that when I asked them if they wanted something to eat or drink in either English or Chinese, they would produce the sign for what they wanted. Regardless of what language I asked them in, they understood what I was asking and responded automatically with a sign. Later when they started to speak, my husband and I noticed that when I would ask them what they wanted to drink they would respond by signing “milk” and saying the word “milk” in the same language they had been asked in. My husband doesn’t speak Chinese, but we found that once the kids started signing and saying the words in both languages, it also made it easier for my husband to pick up on Chinese too! It was great to see that not only my children benefited from baby sign language, my husband did too!
I was so excited to find this connection between baby sign language and bilingualism. Growing up in Canada, my first language is English. Like I mentioned above about how our brain works, I too quickly put one language ahead of another and my Chinese suffered because of that. I did not want the same thing to happen to my children. Unfortunately, there are hardly any resources available to expand on my children’s language skills or any resources for me as a parent to use to help my children. This precious “key” I found with baby sign language and bilingualism couldn’t be used to unlock further language capabilities without the proper resources. Instead of sitting around and waiting for someone else to help, I decided it was time to start making my own resources!
As a result, we will be launching our iCANsign’s baby sign language flashcards in 5 languages! They will be available in English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese. With the help of Sarah Kronick of www.skillustrations.com, we have created several bilingual flashcards and have been working on creating more resources to facilitate bilingualism through sign language. To promote bilingualism, the English word appears on each sign language flashcard as well as the second language with a pronunciation tip. Our language flashcards are intended for English speaking parents who wish to introduce a second language to their child regardless if they have any previous knowledge of that language or not. They are meant to help build your child’s vocabulary in more than one spoken language at an early age. “Early access to language (spoken or signed) is the best predictor of positive spoken language outcomes” (Yoshinaga-Itano & Sedey, 2000). Therefore, incorporating spoken languages at an early age into your baby sign language teaching methods may help your child to become a bilingual baby!
Here are some samples of our Baby Sign Language and Bilingualism Flashcards- More will be coming soon in Full Color as well as Double Sided!
Heredia, Roberto R. (1996). Bilingual Memory: A Re-Revised Version of the Hierarchical Model of Bilingual Memory. Center for Research in Language.
Daniels, M. (1996). Bilingual, bimodel education for hearing kindergarten students. Sign Language Studies.
Daniels, M. (2003). Using a signed language as a second language for kindergarten students. Child Study Journal.
Petitto, L. A., Katerelos, M., Levy, B., Gauna, K., et al. (2001). Bilingual signed and spoken language acquisition from birth: Implications for mechanisms underlying bilingual language acquisition. Journal of Child Language.
Petitto, L. A., & Kovelman, I. (2003, Spring). The bilingual paradox: How signing-speaking bilingual children help us to resolve it and teach us about the brain’s mechanisms underlying all language acquisition. Learning Languages.
Yoshinaga-Itano, C., & Sedey, A. (2000). Early speech development in children who are deaf or hard of hearing: Interrelationships with language and hearing. The Volta Review.