Bianca Birdsey: How sign language helped my girls think, reason and express themselves

Posted on August 12, 2015


Think about that word. What are other thoughts that automatically pin themselves to this collection of letters that give it any meaning to you?

As you ponder for a few minutes…that mind map of little clouds and arrows grows and expands – what fills those little thought clouds? “Words”, “English”, “Speech”? How about “A system of communication”, “Cognition”, “Expression”?

It is natural to default to that which is most familiar to our worlds. Three years ago, the thought map labeled “Language” in my mind, would have probably been rather bare, with “English” and “Speech” as key pins.

I was standing in the queue at a party shop recently with my three daughters in tow, as the twins “Under the Sea” party was soon to be celebrated. The lady at the checkout had notice us. Who doesn’t? Our family is hard to miss, we’re louder than usual, and our speech isn’t perfect, whilst we use our hands to communicate.

We are different, so we stand out. People are curious, and frequently ask some rather interesting questions and say things, exposing their worldviews without realizing what they are actually saying, and I like to believe, intending no real harm at all.

“Are all three of your children uhm,….err….aaah…hard of hearing?” She questioned.

“They are all Deaf.” I replied with a smile, hoping to fill in her awkward search for the right word to use, with a confident, unashamed, sharp “Deaf”. I was also rather surprised at her use of “hard of hearing” as opposed to other options like “dumb” or “disabled” that I had heard before.

“Wow, all three?” She replied leaning over to get a closer look at the twins who were standing just below the counter’s height.

Eden, sitting in the trolley, pointed to the sweet stand on the checkout counter (do they place sweet stands at these points as the final character test for both moms and kids?) and said in her husky voice, “I want red sweetie, Mama!” whilst her sisters, furiously signed a conversation of whether they should have the lighter or darker green edible glitter for their cake and what would happen if they dropped the delicate vial of sparkles that they were carefully clutching.” Two conversations simultaneously; one very simple, the other including some more abstract content; one spoken, the other silent.

Almost relieved to hear Eden’s voice, the lady at the checkout, after glancing over to the signed conversation, looked at Eden and exclaimed, “You can speak! You are such a clever girl to be able to speak.”

Mmm… her words created a chain reaction of interlinked thoughts in my mind, “She was affirming Eden’s desire to communicate, and surely that can’t be bad?” “It’s understandable for people to assume that wishing my kids the ability to speak, wishes me well” “Being able to speak is an added advantage, isn’t it?” “Why do I suddenly feel guilty for thinking that last thought?” Trying to harness my cognitive chaos, my mouth uttered what my loudest thought was shouting.

“Being able to speak doesn’t make her clever.”

Gulp, yes, that was audible. The lady looked at me surprised. “What’s going on in her head, makes her bright,” I continued, “the way she chooses to, or is able to express that, is totally unrelated.” I glanced over the twins who were totally engaged in conversation and being particularly expressive. They had already glanced over to the variety of animated cake tins hanging on the wall that were for hire, and debating which cake they wanted for their next birthday. “Hey, your next birthday is a year away,” I signed to them, “by that time, you’ll want something else.” Glancing back at the slightly red- faced cashier, I gestured in the twins direction, “That conversation right there…that was far more detailed that this little munchkin’s request for that sweetie.”

Language. The online dictionary defines this as, “Any set or system of such symbols as used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people, who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another.”

Without language, we can’t think, and without being able to think and reason, we can’t unlock our true potential. Whether the “system” that we use takes the form of English, or Zulu, or Afrikaans, having a system in place, is the key. Sign language is just another system. A silent system, yes, but one that in my experience, has unlocked the ability for my girls to think, reason and express themselves.

It is interesting that in having this as a scaffold to pin new concepts and vocabulary to, a tool to grow and embellish their brains’ language centers, their speech has started developing. I guess, without vocab to start off with, how do we processes our thoughts to have any vocab to express with in the form of speech?

What I’m continuously confused by, is the contradictory advise that we as parents are told. “If you sign to your kids, they won’t learn to speak.” This is an international voice that causes such distress and confusion for parents. Seriously? Have you read all the evidence that says the exact opposite? My kids are examples of this evidence.

So instead, in fear of making a bad decision, deaf kids who can’t access all sounds for whatever reason, are being deprived of language in a form that they can access. No language = no thoughts or building blocks = no “words” to ever hope to speak. The scary thing is, that the brain isn’t able to learn the foundational components of language forever. It’s the first early years that are critical.

When parents hear this, panic sets in. That feeling of racing against time to give your child any hope of having a brain developed enough to reach its full potential, sent fear rushing through my blood at every consideration. One sore ear, meaning no hearing aid for a day or two, and I was wasting a day of precious time.

One crackling hearing aid needing repairs, and the stress of losing more time nearly drove me batty. Let’s not mention the first few weeks after receiving the aids. Finally your child has been fitted and intervention can start…the time bomb is ticking though, so you’d better ensure that those aids are in 24/7, but your kid won’t have them in for more than 30 seconds!

Your flustered efforts to not waste a single opportunity of language development time (the stress factor even more intense if your child was identified late) just result in tears for both mom and child. This pressure, this extreme stress, is not entirely unnecessary, but is primarily hinged upon a presumption that language is a system of audible words, words that are spoken and consequently dependent on access to sound.

Does intervention only have to start once amplification of whatever kind is in place? Nope is the simple, truthful answer, so why are families being referred for intervention so late? Is it bad to want your child to speak, or not be too fussed if they don’t, for that matter? Not at all. Our desired outcomes are different, our kids are different.

Heck, my three have the same exposure to language in two forms, two of them have pretty much an identical genetic makeup, and they have very similar aided audiograms, but they are each responding differently in terms of communication choice and intelligible speech. We consequently continue our bilingual approach and let them figure what works best for them. This is the path we have opted for, different strokes may work for different folks.

Two weeks ago, one of the twins stomped into our room early one morning, we could sense her excitement as she bounced across the wooden floor. She had experienced a wonderful dream and wanted to tell me about it. They had never discussed their dreams before so I was enthralled with this milestone.

In exclusive sign language, and a little face aglow as she recalled the details, she explained that she had dreamed that she was riding a lion. A big strong lion. He was a kind lion that touched her face gently as he smiled at her. Oh, and he had big pink polka dots all over his fur. There were no language limitations to her describing this extraordinary experience.

I don’t think that her dream was an abstract fantasy.  It reminded me of a scene from my favourite film, “The Chronicles of Narnia; the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” A film that she has never seen. I can imagine that Lion humbling himself with pink polka dots to be more relatable to a very girly little girl.

Language. A system allowing for intelligible communication.

Bianca is a mother of three extraordinary Deaf daughters all under the age of five years. She says: “The past 2 years have seen my life undergo a metamorphosis from being a medical doctor , having never being exposed to the Deaf world before, to accepting and embracing my role as a parent of multiple Deaf children whilst wanting to influence others to see  positive change for families of the Deaf. An extraordinary journey, for which I am extremely grateful. My husband and I live with our 3 daughters in sunny South Africa. I am also the founder and chair of THRIVE Parent Support and Advocacy Group for South African families with Deaf or Hard of Hearing children.” You can see her blog at:

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