M. Giant's
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Friday, March 17, 2006  

Talk to the Hand

I've been after Trash for a while now to start teaching M. Small sign language. I've heard that many babies can pick that up before they can speak English, and I'm eager to hear his review of the past seventeen months. But she says it's pretty much futile this early on unless both parents know sign. And I don't.

And yet, the other night, M. Small was climbing up on the love seat again, and Trash sang him a little song, signing it as she went. He watched her raptly, and then, smiling happily, flailed his hands and arms back at her in what was inarguably an attempt at mimicry.

"Teach that boy sign language right now!" I ordered.

She agreed to give him a short lesson, but he quickly lost interest. So maybe she's right. And by the time I learn sign, he'll know more spoken words than I do anyway.

Trash took ASL as her language requirement when she went back to college in the mid-nineties to prepare for librarian school. She had a gift for it, and she practiced all the time. She'd hang out with her friends who were also learning sign, and they'd converse in it. She'd start signing along with her words when she'd got upset, and then stop talking and keep signing, so it was sometimes like living with a deaf Ricky Ricardo. She'd sign the lyrics while singing along to the radio in the car, until I told her that unless she was going to keep her hands on the wheel, I was going to keep putting the car in neutral. But I never picked up much more than the finger-spelling alphabet and a few of my favorites, like "turtle" and "soda" and "butterfly." But the thing I remember more than anything else wasn't a sign at all, but a certain aspect of deaf culture.

I first learned of it at the airport, when I noticed that Trash was watching a couple of people who were waiting with us at the gate. They were signing, and I asked Trash what they were talking about. This was when she was still learning, and I think it was one of the first times she'd seen sign language being used in the real world. But as soon as I noticed, she looked away from the signers. "It's rude to eavesdrop. Really rude. You just don't do it." And then she wouldn't even tell me what they had been talking about.

Even so, I had no idea just how powerful that conditioning is until last night, the second time this week that ASL came into our lives. She was in the study, working on the computer while a rerun of CSI was playing on my recapping TV. It was the last few minutes of the episode, and Gil, who was going deaf at that point in the series, was having a conversation with another person in sign. As I walked by the TV, I offhandedly said, "It's rude to eavesdrop."

And the awesome thing is that she looked away from the screen and turned back towards the computer monitor as if she'd been slapped. I watched her in amazement, and it was a good five seconds before she realized I was fucking with her. "Hey!" she said, turning back to the TV. But the episode was over. "That wasn't funny!" she lied. "Come on," I said. "Even you thought that was funny."

But then she got her revenge by refusing to tell me what Gil and the other character had been talking about.

Today's best search phrase: "Poisoning ice for flu in his trash." I believe in this context, it would be spelled "flue."

posted by M. Giant 9:05 PM 12 comments


You don't need to formally teach the signs. Just decide which signs he needs and use them and say them when appropriate. Taught autistic grandson drink and eat and more and a few others at 6 months. Slow to talk so glad Mother did that.

By Blogger Pat Ricci, at March 18, 2006 at 9:32 AM  

I've heard that if you start too early, kids just think the sign for a word is like a synonym of the spoken word, and it can stunt their langauage development. Not that you're going to have that problem with M. Small, just a related anecdote.

Parent: Say ball!
Kid: *signs ball*
Parent: No, SAY ball!
Kid (confused): *signs ball*
Parent (frustrated): SAY BALL!
Kid (also frustrated): *begins to cry*

By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 18, 2006 at 10:12 AM  

There are also 'baby signs', which is a set of simple little quasi-sign-language signs, that are sufficient to babies' needs. It overlaps with actual sign language but isn't exactly the same. We tried it with our first son and it really helped. And there was no confusion with switching to spoken words. If you do a search on 'baby signs' I'm sure you'll find more than you need to know.

By Blogger Matthew E, at March 18, 2006 at 12:59 PM  

I was too disturbed by the poisoned ice search phrase to have the warm fuzzy feeling M. Small exploits leave me.

By Blogger princessprattle, at March 18, 2006 at 6:37 PM  

I also know ASL and Trash is correct -- it's rude, like standing close to someone to listen to their conversation. However, I am certain that it's allowed when it's ON TV and thus, M. Giant, that was a mean move.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 18, 2006 at 7:15 PM  

Wow! Suddenly I feel both famous and evil. Um, not that I had any notion that a search about poisoning flu ice might bring up the food poisoning entry or anything. Ahem. Because I have certainly never been plagued by an inexplicable desire to be "Today's best search phrase." Of... of course I haven't. (All the same... yay!)

By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 19, 2006 at 1:21 AM  

i nannied for a language-delayed (possibly autistic) infant/toddler (from when he was 7 mos to just over 2 years) & his parents were in total denial that there could be anything "wrong" with their kid, but i taught him signs for juice, milk, snack, sleepy, nap, & a few others & they were IMMENSELY helpful -- it drastically reduced his frustration at not being able to communicate what he wanted, & it reduced MY frustration with HIM at not being able to decipher his various whiny noises (no babbling, no pointing).

By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 19, 2006 at 9:11 AM  

We used a small set of signs with my daughter starting at about 8 months (eat, drink, apple, banana, sleep) and she picked up on them very quickly. I would challenge anyone who thinks it delays language to spend a silent moment with her now - at 4 years old, her only language problem is talking too much :)

By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 19, 2006 at 5:25 PM  

My cousin had trouble during his first few years - they had a hard time diagnosing what was the matter(autism? deafness? brain damage to the language portion of his brain? a rare muscular development problem that affected his speech muscles?), but he had a really hard time communicating. Let me tell you that a 3 year old boy who can't communicate, in a family with two older brothers, is a difficult thing to watch. Signing helped a ton in his case. And yes, the whole family learned with him.

By Blogger Melbell237, at March 20, 2006 at 2:21 PM  

Am I a huge pain in the arse if I remind you that you should capitalize the "D" in "Deaf culture," at the end of your fifth paragraph?

Actually, I took those same courses a year after Trash, so I already know the answer to that question: of COURSE I am. Moo hoo hah hah hah.

By Blogger Febrifuge, at March 20, 2006 at 5:46 PM  

My little brother (I nanny for him, I'm 21 and he's 17 months) has been 'teaching' signs (just incorporating them into everyday life) since 11 months or so. He picked up at about 12 months on 'more' (usually for food) and 'milk', and 'sister' (yay!). He's very much a 'his way' kid, though, so he caught on and made up his own signs for a bunch of stuff-'mom'(peekaboo, which only she plays with him) and 'snack' (pretending to pick up cheerios), and other stuff.

I don't think it's hurting his language development--he's doing fine verbally as well, and we always use signs in conjunction with the spoken word, which he's starting to do, too. "Do you want to take a nap?" I ask after Sesame street (he sometimes skips his morning naps now, sniff, he's growing up so fast) "Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh," he says, shaking his head and scampering off. He should really quit mocking the way I say No-no-no-no-no to him when he's trying to eat crayons/smash dishes/delete all the files on my hard drive, though. That's a negative.

It's pretty obvious I think this is a great idea, huh? I guess I just feel a little comeraderie because M. Tiny and my brother are the same age. Good luck!

By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 24, 2006 at 11:53 AM  

I took a signing course with my now-11-month-old son, Sam, and one of the first things we were told is that the whole "delayed verbal skills" thing is a myth. Just in case you were actually concerned.

And you really don't need more than a handful (ha! "Handful!" Get it?) of signs to alleviate frustration. We learned about a hundred in class, 95 percent of which I promptly forgot. But the ones that remain -- "eat," "milk, "sleep," "more," and... uh... one other one -- are starting to come in handy. And I don't know if this is due to the signing, but Sam has also come up with his own ways to gesture "no" and "up" without any coaching.

If nothing else, it's the goddamnest cutest thing in the world to watch little kids sign. To paraphrase a Simpsons quote (and isn't that why we're all here?), "Look at him sign! He thinks he's people!"

By Blogger Tammy, at March 28, 2006 at 4:13 PM  

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