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Gallaudet Univeristy
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A Good Start: Suggestions for Visual Conversations with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Babies and Toddlers

Section IV: Gradually Modify Your Communication to Make Your Baby's Transition to Language Easier

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What's in Section IV:

When a baby shows that he or she is beginning to understand language, parents can start using very short sentences: one, two, or three words or signs at a time, plus pointing or tapping on objects
Repeat words, signs, or short sentences several times and tap on objects or point to activities to show the child what you are communicating about
If you use signed language, you can also use fingerspelling
Don't try to send too many messages

A More In-Depth Look:

When a baby shows that he or she is beginning to understand language, parents can start using very short sentences: one, two, or three words or signs at a time, plus pointing or tapping on objects.

It has been known for many years that hearing parents of hearing babies use short and simple sentences with their babies between about 9 and 15 months of age (Bremner, 1988). This is when babies start to show that they understand language, and most babies themselves begin to produce language. Without really thinking about it, their parents give them a "model" of language that is easy to understand and easy to learn. Then, when the babies begin to talk more, parents gradually move onto more complicated language.

The same general pattern has been noticed among deaf parents. When their deaf babies begin to understand signed language, deaf mothers start producing very short, simple, signed phrases and sentences. Research at Gallaudet University (and in Australia and the United Kingdom) shows that many deaf mothers produce mostly one- and two-sign phrases when their babies are about 12 months old (Mohay, 2000; Spencer & Lederberg, 1997; Harris, Clibbens, Chasin, & Tibbitts, 1989; Kantor, 1982; Kyle, Ackerman, & Woll, 1987).

As children begin to use language themselves, parents don't need to produce many long sentences. It seems more important for the parents' language to follow the child's interest and that the language be produced where the child can see it. Of course, deaf mothers begin to use more and longer signed sentences after their children show that they understand more — and when the children themselves begin to produce more than one word or sign in a single phrase. However, in the early stages of a child's understanding and expression of language, hearing parents should feel comfortable signing short (even one-sign) sentences to the children.

A More In-Depth Look:

Repeat words, signs, or short sentences several times. Also tap on objects or point to activities to show the child what you are communicating about.

Like hearing parents with hearing babies, deaf mothers repeat signs and short sentences again and again. This gives the babies several chances to notice them and recognize the language patterns. Babies seem to find repeated language interesting. Deaf mothers also tap on objects, point, use interesting facial expressions, and use other strategies (discussed throughout this document) to help their babies see and pay attention to language.

A More In-Depth Look:

If you use signed language, you can also use fingerspelling.

Hearing parents can use fingerspelling occasionally with young deaf and hard of hearing children. Although at first glance it seems fingerspelling would be difficult for children, researchers report that deaf parents use it — even with babies (Erting, Thumann-Prezioso, & Benedict, 2000). Researchers even think that occasional short fingerspelled words might give a child a first step toward learning about letters — and this can help later in learning to read.

One hearing father who participated in my research told me a story about the way his deaf daughter showed her parents that it was all right to fingerspell to her. This child had a deaf teacher, who must have fingerspelled to her in her intervention program. But the parents had not seen this; they both thought it foolish to fingerspell to a young child. Surely it would be too hard to understand. One day, when their daughter was less than 3 years old, they noticed her standing in back of their car. She was looking carefully at the metal letters that spelled out its name. Then they saw her little fingers move: V-O-L-V-O, she spelled slowly and carefully. Once they got over their initial shock, they decided that fingerspelling wasn't too hard for her after all!

A More In-Depth Look:

Don't try to send too many messages. It is not necessary to "flood" the child with language.

One strategy deaf mothers use often — waiting for a child to look up before signing to them — means that deaf mothers tend to send fewer language messages to their babies than hearing mothers do in the same amount of time. Still, the signed language skills of deaf babies with deaf signing parents develop as quickly as the spoken language of hearing children (Spencer & Lederberg, 1997).