Saturday, 13 October 2012

On teaching sign language

I had always planned to teach any children I had a second language. I think it is a really important skill to have in this world, and in Canada it makes you a more marketable employee. I took several years of French in school and although I am no where near bilingual, the French I do have has helped me navigate international travel and to communicate on a simple level with native French speakers.

So when Phoenix was born with DS, I was bound and determined that she would still speak a second language and that I was still going to enrol her in French immersion. As Phoenix has gotten a bit older I have had to re-evaluate my thinking in this area. Although her language is developing nicely, it is a struggle for her to articulate and put syllables together. Becoming a fluent English speaker is going to be a longer road than it is for most kids and I'm not sure that a bilingual program is really going to benefit her.

But I have realised recently that having a second language isn't out of reach. We can make her second language ASL (sign language).

We started teaching sign at about a year old to attempt to bridge the communication gap that was likely going to develop between her understanding and her ability to talk. Children with DS are frequently very late talkers with language taking off between age 4 and 6. So it is extremely important to teach sign language to help them express their needs and wants, and to prevent negative behaviours which emerge out of frustration.

It is also a good way to work on neuroplasticity at a young age. Neuroplasticty is the brains ability to adapt, to be flexible, to develop new neural pathways. Learning a second language helps the brain think in different ways.

Having worked with young people with intellectual deficits, one of the things I have noticed about them is that they tend to be rigid thinkers. They are not able to be flexible, or think about things in different ways or to think about things abstractly. In essence, they are not as adaptable as other people. It leads to an over reliance on routine and predictability and makes it difficult for people to adapt when routines change or something unexpected happens. Then all hell breaks loose.

Don't get me wrong. As a spec ed teacher, routines are my friend. Children and youth alike respond to routines and thrive on predictability. It creates a safe place where children know what to expect. But our world is all about change. Unexpected things happen all the time, so we need to try to teach skills that allow our kids and youth to deal with change and to cope with the unexpected.

This is what I am hoping to work on with Phoenix as she grows up. I want to make her as flexible a thinker as possible. To see that the world is not just black and white, that there are nuances, and other ways of tackling problems and dealing with change. In my world this is all tied up in a term we call resilience.

I hope that by encouraging the use of a second language, a second way to think about the world and to express ideas and concepts that I will be able to help Phoenix become more flexible and adaptable.

Because I want this beautiful and determined child to have success and options in her future.


  1. I originally thought we would drop sign language as Hailey started speaking. I've since changed that opinion. I plan on continuing with both.

  2. it is great post. You may be interested in using baby sign language but then are you conversant with it yourself? Do not worry the language is quite simple. Bilingualism