What Happens When We Stop Talking And Start Signing

Debra Messing and Julia Roberts have been reported to use sign language at home…

* Parent Experiment of the Month:

My family uses American Sign Language every single day, and it truly has been a journey. Even though I have a very severe hearing loss that requires hearing aids (and a freakishly good talent at reading lips), I didn’t grow up with sign language at a young age and my loss was gradual. My youngest daughter Follin, however, was discovered to have much more of a loss shortly after birth, and has been flourishing since the introduction of sign language into our home. Despite the fact that both of my girls and I communicate regularly with the usage of both speech and sign, my husband has mastered only the following sentence: “clean my dirty airplane”.

This gave me the idea for the first of many future in-home experiments: stop talking and only use ASL for the entire day. Would this help my husband finally be forced to pay attention and actually learn some sign language? Does an immersion technique help kids learn, or make them flounder even faster? Since so many fellow mommas consider integrating a second language into the home (whether Spanish, French or otherwise), I decided to jump in without thinking… and see what happens. Although part of me hoped our life would be turned around in a harmonious, touching way (with perfectly cued soundtrack music) a la Julie and Julia, one day only leaves so much time for life altering transformation.

At the beginning of the day, my nearly-5-year-old daughter served as translator for most of the conversation (which was both tedious and impressive). “Mommy, is not talking today” she dictated at exhaustingly slow speeds, “Daddy needs to learn sign language”. My husband followed up most of these interactions with an eye roll and some sort of mocked ASL mime. His faux-signing became so dramatic that our ASL-using toddler started flourishing her fingers in the air with Martha Graham levels of drama, and opening and closing her mouth as if she were talking (while resembling a spastic Goldfish more than anything else). Eventually I became so frustrated that I wanted to yell my attempts at communication, but had to grit my teeth and continue signing instead.

My girls watching Signing Times in the morning…

Although this day of “no talking, only signing” was likely frustrating for my husband, it made me realize how much more frustrating the world can seem for my child. Only time will tell if one day Follin will feel this same sense of exclusion when trying to get others to listen to what she has to say (whether it involves her fingers or not). But since I increasingly find that the usage of sign language greatly supports my own lip reading talents (and therefor let’s my brain “relax” to what seems like normal levels during social interaction), ASL is becoming more and more necessary in our lives. The sad fact of the matter is that even though sign language gets the bad reputation of stifling spoken language or hindering our abilities with english…it actually helps our minds flourish by eliminating such frustrations as asking people to repeat themselves and pretending to understand in noisy places. Frankly, if I have to nod along to another bearded man’s vocal diatribe (which is impossible to lip read unless you’re Burt Reynolds), I’m going to crack.

Yes, my husband has a long way to go, but by the end of the day he was answering my ASL commentary with ease, and responding to our children using a lot more hands, and a lot less attitude. The immersion technique might be tiring at first (especially when your kids have no clue what you’re saying), but eventually…it begins to work. I think when it comes to integrating change in our families and trying out new things, sometimes the best thing we can do is put down the book we’re studying, stop psychoanalyzing our choices and just do it. In the end, the best way to learn is through actions and not words (except of course when your words are the change, or your actions create words). Either way, this experiment was one well worth trying.

* Speak Up: Would you ever try using immersion technique with language in your home? What experiment should I try next?

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Posted in 2008 - 2011 Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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