There’s a film called Meet the Fockers, and in that film there is a scene in which Robert De Niro teaches his grandson how to communicate with sign language – he teaches him the sign for “milk”, for “more please”, and of course the sign for “poop”. Most people laughed when they saw it, but not many followed it through by teaching their own babies.
That’s changing. In the North East alone there are six teachers signed up with Tiny Talk, an organisation which promotes baby sign language. Classes are held in Cramlington, Morpeth, Monkseaton, Jesmond, Gosforth, Kingston Park, Low Fell, Ryton, Consett, Durham and Spennymoor, with new classes starting this month in Seaton Delaval, South Shields and Jarrow. Parents, apparently, are frequently amazed by the results.
‘They’re blown away by it,’ says Emma Wood, who runs the Gosforth and Jesmond classes. ‘One mum was telling me that her little girl loves the Three Little Monkeys song and can sign monkey, so in the middle of the night she cries out for her mummy, and her mummy will go and the little girl will start signing monkey. Her mummy can say, “It is sleepy time, I’ll do a very quick version for you,” but if the little girl couldn’t sign monkey we’d never know she wanted the monkey song.’
Emma says they teach babies everyday words from British Sign Language and it’s useful because babies can control their hands before their mouths, so sign long before they can speak – ‘Usually speech comes at about 18 months,’ says Emma, ‘as it takes quite a bit of tongue control and muscle development and vocal chord development.’
Emma says signs can usually be learned when babies are six months old, though she has seen babies signing for milk at 12 weeks. Originally a computer programmer, she started teaching the lessons after taking her own son and daughter to Tiny Talk. Isabelle, Emma’s daughter, knew over 100 signs by the time she could speak, which Emma says was enormously helpful, recalling one example when Isabelle was eating a bowl of chilli and made the sign for moon while pointing at a mushroom. Emma was confused.
‘So I signed back,’ explains the 42-year-old. ‘I always repeat the sign back – “Moon? Where?” She pointed at a mushroom. You know when you slice up a mushroom, it’s got that crescent shape, she was pointing at that, and I said to her, “Oh, it does does look like the moon,” and she got excited. They kind of get this body tense, where they’re so excited that every muscle in their body tenses.
‘If she couldn’t sign, she would never have been able to tell me that the mushroom looks like a moon, which is another great thing about signing – it stops frustration because they can tell you things. Maybe if she’d pointed at it and I said, “Mushroom”, she might have got a bit frustrated with trying to tell me, “I know it’s a mushroom but it looks like a moon.”’
She’s had many similar experiences, such as when Isabelle was in her pushchair and pointed at a car alloy while doing the sign for star; or when her son, Nicholas, first put two signs together – “where” and “daddy” – and after Emma answered that his daddy was at work, Nicholas tensed up with excitement like his sister had; and there are instances from her classes, such as the little boy who recently signed “chocolate” and “biscuit”.
‘It gives them the tool to let you know what they need or want, what they’re thinking, and what they understand about their world,’ Emma tells us – as we all know, sometimes a chocolate biscuit is very, very important to communicate.
To teach the babies how to sign at the hour-long sessions, Emma says the parents sing songs, most of which are familiar. She also uses sensory activities which promote communication, whether it’s touching a scarf or having the babies look in a mirror and try to imitate what their parents are doing. Then they stop for tea, coffee, juice and biscuits, and chat about what each family has been up to, while the babies play with toys.
Now, you might be at home with your baby, and you haven’t been to any signing classes, and you’re thinking, ‘Well, my baby is already signing, so what’s the point of lessons?’ Well, Emma explains that some signs do come naturally, so babies will often pick up a little without lessons. Usually it starts with waving, which is part of official British Sign Language, or the sign for a drink – a c-shaped hand held to your mouth.
‘Babies might pick those signs up,’ says Emma. ‘They also naturally do the “pick me up” sign, where they put their arms in the air. But other signs, like “sun” and “moon” and “bird” and “milk” and “more”, they don’t come naturally unless people use them. We find that babies with a deaf parent in the family communicate a lot more quickly than children of hearing parents because they’re exposed to sign language earlier – it’s so much easier to use your hands and your arms than it is to speak.’
However, the fact that it’s easier to sign than speak worries some parents when it comes to considering Tiny Talk classes. There is a fear that signing slows verbal development, but Emma is categorical when we ask: ‘No, it doesn’t,’ she says. In fact, she believes it can have the opposite impact, helping babies get to grips with speech more quickly.
She believes the first reason for this is confidence: ‘They have confidence that they can be understood when they’re signing to you,’ she tells us. ‘They’ve got that self-esteem. There are a couple of children in my class who are 16 months now, and their speech is wonderful. One little boy says “butterfly” and a lot of other things, and his signs are actually dropping away now.’
She believes the other reason is because of the way that signing is taught: ‘You end up saying the word more,’ she explains. ‘If we take “milk” as an example, if people weren’t using sign language they might say, “Come on, let’s have your milk,” and that would be it. With sign language the mummy says, “Do you want your milk?” and they sign as they say the word, then as they’re having their milk – “Are you having your milk?” – and then when they’ve finished their milk – “Did you enjoy your milk?” So we’re introducing even more verbal language because we’re so keen to reinforce the sign.’
Which is exactly what some of you might remember Robert De Niro doing in Meet the Fockers – Mr De Niro repeating the words again and again, and the child giving a sign to explain what he wanted. Emma says the result in the movie was perfectly accurate, and in fact, she says she’s even had people signing up after seeing the film. The way she describes it is, it’s a little window into their world, which is surely a good thing to have.
To find out more about Tiny Talk go to www.tinytalk.co.uk
To contact Emma email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, go to her website www.tinytalk.co.uk/emmawo, or go to her Facebook