“As a mother, I find it absolutely fascinating to see my children grow and develop…smile, reach out, follow my voice, hug, play together, ask questions…They are amazing.” – Lora Heller,MS, MT-BC, LCAT, Founding Director of Baby Fingers
My story is below. Enjoy.
I have always loved being around babies and children. I started to baby sit when I was 11 years old, and always had a job teaching drama or music to kids. I saw “Children of a Lesser God” on Broadway as a child and was in awe of the sign language, how it was so beautiful and expressive as a language and as an art form. Later, as a teenager, I was a counselor at summer camp and met a deaf camper who taught me my first signs. I was hooked. When I went to college, I majored in music therapy and studied music in deaf culture…my bachelor’s thesis was the creation and production of a musical play incorporating sign language and Deaf actors. After working for a while with D/deaf students, I went on for my master’s in deaf education where my thesis was a pilot program teaching sign language through music to hearing babies and toddlers. That was the basis to Baby Fingers, which I was inspired to develop when my son Ezekiel started to use signs as a baby.
Below is a journal of my signing experiences with both my kids…
By the time he was 5 months old, Zeke was clearly understanding signs. He looked directly at me as I signed. When I asked him (voice off/ASL only) “where is your cow?” he looked at the five toys before him and pushed the cow forward! This was all so exciting!!
At 6 months, after signing good morning to him, Zeke responded with his first sign, “I love you.” This was my inspiration to develop Baby Fingers!
At 10 months, when his mobile stopped, Zeke made his first two-word phrase: “More music!”
At one year, he understood over 100 signs, and was actively, consistently using 20 signs
Zeke’s first three-word phrase came at 13 months: “More crackers please!”
By 15 months, Zeke understood at least 200 signs, and was actively, consistently using fifty. He was able to express memory of events, i.e., passing by subway and signing “daddy train work” soon after saying goodbye to daddy at another subway station. His absolute favorite signs included: MUSIC, HOME, TOGETHER…Zeke’s spoken language was really emerging by this point, though he continued to sign and speak much of the time.
At 21 months, Zeke’s speech development was overwhelming, much like his sign language progress had been at 6+ months. He was eager to talk on the phone, read books aloud, make up stories or share events of the day, talk to his friends, toys, or to himself. He had command of at least 90 signs and 30 words; his ability to put ideas, thoughts, and concepts into complete sentences was so exciting! Sometimes he used speech alone, and other times used combination of speech and sign. He rarely signed a full thought without talking anymore. However, Zeke signed to everyone around him, and was delighted when someone signed back! One day, Ezekiel was so angry/upset that he couldn’t get his words out and instead clearly signed to us through his tears–and we knew what he needed. What a wonderful tool to have!
Zeke, at two years old, still supported some of his communication with sign; he was stringing together three- to five-word spoken sentences with signs as emphasis or to clarify anything we couldn’t understand. The concept of using full sentences wasn’t new to him, as he was signing sentences by 12 to 15 months. He was now having fun doing the same with his voice. He loved reminding us to stop at every driveway or garage and look out for the cars. It was such fun to hear him sing, tell stories, and ask questions! He loved to engage his baby brother Ossian through kisses, signs and songs, stories… even beginning to share toys!
At three years, Zeke had held onto a few signs he used now and then to emphasize or clarify his spoken words. Others he used at my request to show Sian, or at times of frustration. It was interesting to see the signs that were once approximations now expressed perfectly. He talked all the time! Both boys were learning Spanish at home as well, and the use of sign seemed to bridge the gap between Spanish and English .
By three-and-a-half years, Zeke wasn’t signing regularly anymore–but he still recognized and understood many of the signs he had relied upon. His understanding of signs for words and phrases like “don’t touch, that’s fragile,” was essential. It was extremely helpful for recall as well; when he couldn’t think of the word he wanted to use, or didn’t know the meaning of something he heard in Spanish, I signed it to him and he could carry on! I’m hoping both the kids will have this language at their disposal as they continue on in life.
Five years: At a birthday party, Zeke–with his mouth full of pizza–silently signed “More please, mommy.” He frequently asked me to teach him new signs for his developing (English) vocabulary, and finger spelling in ASL is helping him to write new words. Zeke’s Kindergarten teachers incorporated some ASL in class.
At 4 months, Ossian was focusing on my hands as I signed, looking from one hand to the other. He really tuned into our music at home as well, with his focus spot on if I sang and signed. When he was fussy due to hunger, and I signed “milk,” he immediately relaxed, knowing his needs would be met!
At 6 1/2 months, he began clapping hands and later signed “more” several times during breakfast!
At 7 months, he responded to the “I Love You” sign by holding up his hand. And although he was not yet requesting milk, it looked like he was signing it while nursing. Praise and repetition at these times helped to establish the use of the signs!
Ossian pushed his tray away during breakfast one day around 8 months, looked at me, and signed “milk.” Needless to say, he was very happy when I picked him up to nurse! He was understanding more and more signs, though his favorite person to watch was Zeke!
At 9 months, Sian was signing “eat” when asked if he was hungry or wanted to eat! By 9 1/2 months, he was signing “water,” yet often signed “milk” when thirsty, even if he wanted water. He was also blowing kisses, which looked similar to his sign for water–we figured it out based on the context of the situation. Ossian had been signing “more” and then pointing to what he wanted, which developed into 2-word (signed) phrases as he picked up signs for those objects. It is always very exciting how once language starts, it just blossoms! Patience and consistency truly pay off.
At one year, Sian was imitating many signs and later using them appropriately. He had added “daddy,” “finished,” and “home” to his vocabulary, and signed “I love you” more consistently than before. He gave us and his friends hugs all the time, spontaneously and upon request. He also sang and “spoke” a ton! Also walking (and dancing!), so watch out world!
By 13 months, Ossian was signing “banana,” “bath,” “tree,” and “dog.” He understood everything. Looking at one of his books, he saw a picture of an apple, signed “apple” and walked to the refrigerator to get one! He then returned to “reading” and signed “eat-apple,” as the storybook character was doing just that! Two-sign phrases became the norm.
At 20 months, it was so much fun to hear Ossian talking, and to see new signs interspersed so he could communicate a complete thought or question! He had some key phrases all spoken, such as “Don’t do that!” when Ezekiel was bothering him! He had dropped many signs for words he now said, such as banana and daddy; others he signed and said simultaneously such as milk, apple, book, more. Although he said “Agua” and “Hola,” his Spanish vocabulary was mainly receptive. In the mornings when we said goodbye, he said “mamma” and signed “work” — then said “Bye mamma, love you” (with I love you hand sign as well)! Ossian was still expressing much of his (new) vocabulary through signs, though he tended to drop them sooner as the words came along. He was also imitating speech more spontaneously. He and Zeke had full conversations of their own–and the imaginary play we witnessed was extremely complex. Both boys still loved to sing favorite songs in sign. What a joyful time!
At 3 years, Sian had a strong command of spoken language. He still understood a little Spanish and many signs, and had maintained a few select signs to emphasize his desires. Ossian had connected so strongly to his name sign–baby with the O hand shape…but during morning circle in nursery, he discovered he was no longer a baby, and he requested a new name sign! So, like Zeke’s is the I Love You hand shape making a Z, Sian’s is I Love You making an O.
My boys are teenagers now – hard to believe! While we don’t sign regularly and their ASL vocabulary is still quite minimal, signs like “I Love You”, “Proud of You”, “I’m Sorry” have been tremendously beneficial as they’ve grown up. Signing from a distance and for such purposes has been essential, continuing to foster and strengthen our bond as parent & child.