Sign language is rapidly becoming a widely recognised form of communication in its own right, like any other mother-tongue. For many in the deaf community, sign language is a first language. It is the only way that many people can communicate, and the importance of being able to use gestures instead of spoken word is starting to appear in schools and nurseries with basic signs used to help children convey feelings, describe things and explore daily routines.
When we found out Alfie was deaf, we knew we’d have to make sign language part of our world too. Fortunately, because I grew up with a deaf relative, I knew some simple signs and could finger-spell pretty well, which I learnt back before I was 10 years old. As Alfie has grown, one of the common questions we get fairly often is “so is he going to have to use sign language?” and it’s a difficult question to answer, because we don’t really know. I mean, we use some signs with him regularly, but we don’t use it as our main way of communicating.
I’ve mentioned before that we are incredibly lucky that Alfie had his hearing aids fitted very early and has adjusted to them really well, meaning his speech is developing somewhat normally. But I wanted to describe to you how his development has come on, specifically focusing on communication. If you’ve never had experience with the deaf community or sign language, you’ll find this interesting!
Firstly, communication isn’t the same as language, or talking. Communicating is what we do when we want to give someone else a message, which could be a facial expression, a gesture, a vocalisation, anything which lets someone else know that you have something you’d like them to know. Being able to communicate with anyone is a basic human need, and it’s important to remember that regardless of the method you choose to “talk” with someone, things like your facial expression and hand gestures give what you’re saying more context, depth and meaning.
Now, everyone knows what sign language is. It’s what the men and women do in the right-hand corner of your TV when you watch late-night re-runs of shows. A surprising amount of people think they know sign language when they can comically ‘swear’, and you all know what I mean. But what we’re using with Alfie is different to this. We’re using Sign Supported English.
Sign Supported English is where we use normal spoken English language, and reinforce certain words with the correct British Sign Language sign. The reason this is so different to BSL is because the structure is more similar to spoken language. BSL has it’s own grammatical structure which is very different to spoken English, so with Alfie having two hearing parents and seemingly responding to his hearing aids incredibly well, we wanted to encourage integration into a spoken language, using sign to help with things he needs.
The first sign we used with Alfie was milk. We started this when Alfie was a couple of months old, simply using the sign every time we used the word with him. When he was around 8 months old, he began hinting that he knew what the sign was and could anticipate what was coming. A couple of months later, he began to be able to ask for milk by using the sign, so every time he used it we would make him a bottle. Now, when we sign milk, he runs to the kitchen and waits by the gate for us to go and make him a milk, so we have to be careful not to use it if its not going to end up with a bottle for him!
He doesn’t know many signs, but if you ask him, he can show you monkey, dog, duck, bird mouse, friend, milk, train and hug.
Don’t get me wrong, we could have spent way more time teaching him signs, but as he’s grown up his speech seemed to develop normally. We were pretty surprised, to be honest. We heard many stories of deaf babies starting to make noises and then stopping pretty early on, but Alfie continued to babble and gurgle and coo. We used his development journal to mark off sound patterns he was making and it soon occured to us that despite a severe hearing loss and having a bit of a disadvantage at learning spoken language, he was picking language up quickly and soon began to say his first words. Along came “baba” first, I remember hearing his little voice for the first time and I welled up with pride that he had said something, but secretly kept in the back of my head that I thought he was going to stop one day. But then came “mama”, “nana”, “dada”… could it be that he was learning to talk?!… Slowly but surely, over the next few months, more and more consonant sounds emerged in his babble and he began mixing sounds to sound like real words.
He’s now 18 months, or near enough, and it looks like the words will be coming thick and fast soon. He can clearly say why, man, one, ten, car, yeah, hiya and has a range of words which he enjoys using which we have NO idea what they mean, such as yab, which is pretty funny!
We know he wont have full speech as soon as many other children, but we are so happy with how he’s doing and firmly believe our approach has been right for Alfie. It certainly wont be right for all children, whether hearing or deaf, but each case needs to be considered individually to find the best suited way of helping them communicate.
For Alfie, this is a bit of an ad-hock mix, but if he’s happy and thriving, then as his parents, we’re happy too.