Communication with pre-vocalisation humans: a review

Earlier I mentioned that Cathy and I were trying to communicate with Owen using sign language. I’m here to report how that went.

It took a while. Our signing was persistent, and eventually we started seeing him signing back at us, although because of his impaired fine motor skills (what with being a baby and all) he didn’t do a good job of making the “correct” or taught signs. But we knew what he meant, and we consistently “corrected” him (by repeating our understanding back using the right sign), and saw no change. Once he’d figured out the sign for something, and he was getting the right response, he was happy. It took more than six months for him to change his sign for Cat from his personal sign (sticking his fingers to his lips) to that similar to the right one (pulling at whiskers on your face). He’s still signing “more” incorrectly, but we know exactly what he means – and he couples it with a spoken “Mor” nowadays.

One thing that I noticed was that his vocabulary was expanding steadily, until it suddenly collapsed. And that coincided with him beginning to vocalise – as soon as he started making distinguishable sounds, it seemed like all the hand signs fell out of his head. They’ve slowly returned, but it was a major disappointment to go from understanding most of his wants to understanding few of them.

A downside of sign language is that it’s hard to read in darkness. So going to a crying baby in the middle of the night and getting him to tell me what was wrong/what he wanted didn’t work so good.

In balance, I’d say that signing helped a lot. Owen’s a very calm child, which I partially attribute to his ability to tell his parents what he wants – and when we’re able to tell him that we understand, but he’s not getting any more chocolate until tomorrow, his frustration isn’t due to a communications failure.

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