THE SIGNS ALONG THE WAY
Our little one is blossoming each day. It’s amazing to watch. Already, we have noticed that at four months, he appears to understand many words. He knows when we’re about to go for a walk, about to take a bath, when we’re about to feed and change his diaper. He also appears to know his name - when we shout out Luca, he turns to face us (and usually smiles - we believe he loves the sound of his own name and takes ownership of it!). I also note how his face explodes in a burst of a brilliant smile when I tell him I love him- whether I tell him in English or in Serbian (I use both languages interchangeably). I wonder whether he is comprehending the words or whether he is registering our tone and facial expressions. Possibly, it’s a combination of of words, tone, expressions and particular gesticulations and/or motions we do. For instance, when we speak of his diaper, we are checking his diaper or carrying him to the changing station. This would signal to him that his diaper is about to be changed, even if he did not comprehend the word “diaper” or any word associated with a diaper change. This reminds me of a study (I believe it was referred to in Oliver Sacks’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”) that showed when we understand language, we are comprehending a lot more than words. We are conscious of tone, expression and other signals that aid in our understanding. If you’ve ever learnt a second language as an older child or adult, you will remember that you can get by with a few words and understand the gist of a conversation with such a cadaverous understanding of vocabulary and syntax by utilizing knowledge of tone, expression and other emotional signals. When the part of the brain that registers language in the sense of pure vocabulary and syntax, is damaged, most of these injured people can nevertheless go about their daily lives barely noticing hardship as they will utilize their comprehension of these emotional signals and by so doing, sharpen their register and become even better at their comprehension. So, while patients with such injury could communicate near to or at the same level as everyone else - they cannot comprehend spoken language with no emotional cues (i.e. a recording by a computer).
I was at first hesitant to speak both languages to my son and resolved to only speak one. However, in particular as his father does not understand Serbian, I naturally fell into a pattern of speaking both languages to him. I worry that by doing this I may retard his lingual development, even though I never speak both languages at the same time (or if I do, I will say a few phrases in English and repeat the same in Serbian). My husband and his family speak Greek to him on occasion, to add to Luca’s lingual melange. Recently, we have added another language to the mix - sign language. Hopefully, he will pick up all three languages and then utilize the three to sprout his knowledge of other languages, having a foundation in tongues derived from Ancient Greek, Old Slavonic and Norse/Latin. The grammatical complexities of Greek and Serbian (for instance, the Serbian use of seven cases, an extremely difficult concept for a foreigner to grasp and the reason my husband’s ambitious and enthusiastic excursion into the language soon petered off) and the versatility of English should (hopefully) provide him a solid base for grasping various different groups of languages. I’ve found however that the more languages you learn, the easier more languages are to grasp. We are all born polyglots (didn’t Chomsky prove that there is a universal grammar and that we can soak up any and all languages at birth?).
Recently, we’ve started utilizing sign language with our son. I was wary at first, believing that it may retard his verbal development (apparently a common fear). After reading up on the subject and being introduced to many arguments as to why sign language in fact accelerates verbal development and even reading - for you can introduce reading by introducing the signs of the alphabet and then simple three letter words that may be easier to grasp than purely visual learning (although I would think that this would depend on the particular child’s learning propensities and mechanisms), I decided to explore it. I was not so much persuaded by the argument of improving my son’s lingual ability - both hubby and I were a little wary of accepting all the arguments in favour of sign language that we read in sign language books (after all, while it may be worthwhile for the fox to eat all the chickens, one would hardly accept the argument without some skepticism from the fox itself, no?)- but by the fact that it fostered your child’s independence and expression. Even if sign language retarded lingual development - and that’s a big if - no one out there is arguing that it prohibits it or even impairs it permanently - only that it may slow it down to some extent and in the end everyone ends at an even level. In that case, I would much rather my son communicate with me sooner even if thereby he would communicate with me later with words. Whatever his comprehension, his vocal chords will simply not allow him to speak the words he knows in order to communicate with us. He may however be able to sign much quicker. I absolutely cannot wait for the day Luca signs “milk” or “diaper” or dare I even write “love” - my heart would summersault!
We can already see that Luca wishes desperately to communicate with us and becomes evidently frustrated when he is not able to express his intention to us. He is a very vocal kid. He babbles constantly and experiments with different sounds. I have very little worry that learning sign language would in fact retard his development in any way. Another particular benefit for us, is the ability to utilize the same sign for English, Serbian and Greek. By doing this, we hope to foster his understanding that he is learning three different languages concomitantly. While we are using ASL, which is particular to the United States so that Serbian and Greek sign language are different and we are most probably teaching him the wrong signs for these sign languages, our intent is not in making him a polyglot in the sign language arena but in fostering our communication. For instance, if later he can sign “eat” and we have learnt the signs for say, different fruits, I can ask him what he would want, and he would have to think what he wanted - does he want an apple or a banana? This not only fosters communication and expression, but his independence and assertiveness By allowing him to express what he wants and providing him a means to think of what he wants, we would be strengthening his character as he would not only be passively receiving what we give him and merely reacting to his environment but actively engaging with his environment - which to some extent, he already does. We would just be adding more fuel to his fire.