Emily Howlett: For my young son, signing is last week’s trick. Speech has taken over…

Posted on October 14, 2014



Do you know, even before there was the remotest chance I might ever become a mother, I was a great believer in the brilliance of babies signing.

I don’t mean ‘baby sign’; that chubby hand waving that bears no resemblance to BSL or assistance to communication beyond being cute to watch, which I still harbour mixed feelings about.

Actually, re-reading that sentence, I’d say my feelings aren’t so much mixed as blatantly dismissive. Moving swiftly on…

Small children learning true sign language is a great and positive thing. It can allow earlier, easier communication, it builds their coordination and many, many other listed (and proven) benefits that come along with signing as a newfound skill.

I’m not going to harp on about it anymore than I already have, repeatedly, several times… Endlessly…

So, that was before I became a mother. I genuinely thought it was a wonderful thing, with no downsides.

And then I had my own little guy, and soon came the excitement of seeing him starting to sign well before there was any chance of him being physically developed enough to begin speaking.

There was a visible relief in his tiny body’s language at finally being able to communicate some of his wants and needs. Even though most of them seemed to revolve around food, cars and being allowed to bite the dog’s face.

As the only deaf person in my immediate family (my sister doesn’t count; she’s my sister and it’s a universal sibling law that this single fact makes her invisible and inconsequential) I also enjoyed the intimate connection it gave me with my son; we were both using sign as our first language, in a house full of speaking and listening.

And, as the flipside of this, we were both almost inadvertently teaching my family and friends how to sign too. Surely it’s true that the only thing better than simply having a beautiful, secret language is being able to share it.

However. My amazing signing baby, oh… He continues to grow. He continues to become an independent little boy instead of my miniature comrade.

He runs, he jumps, he climbs, he hides and he speaks. My word, he speaks so much. So much that I’m not convinced there isn’t actually something chemically nefarious and vocabulary-building in all that Alphabetti spaghetti he wolfs down.

And with the dawn of this new, easy way of communicating, the sun has set on his immediate need to sign.

He has realised he gets the attention of a lot more people by yelling at them, or by whispering very sweetly, or by saying ‘pwease’ in a particularly cute way.

Signing is last week’s trick. This week he will simply call you by your name and you will melt and give him anything he asks for. Damn you. Damn you all.

I have, in my deep despair, spoken to a few friends in similar situations and bilingual houses. They have universally assured me that once he gets over the amazing newness of speech, he will pick up the signing again.

He will realise different people respond more readily to different languages, and he will want to use both. More importantly (to him), he will recognise how adorable it is to speak and sign as a toddler, and how the chocolate-fruit ratio can be improved with careful usage of both.

More importantly (to me), it will bring him back to me a little. I miss being able to readily understand most of what he says without asking for repetition. I miss sitting together and signing colours and animals.

And I miss our little secret chats. Even if they did all end with us both biting the dog’s face.

Emily Howlett is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer, horsewoman and new mum. Emily used to be found all over the place, but motherhood has turned her into somewhat of a self-confessed homebody. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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