Can sign language help your bilingual child?

Experts reckon that bilingual kids are at a significant advantage. OK so it might take them a little longer to grasp the lingos but the final results outweigh any difficulties along the way.

Tell that to a toddler from a multilingual family at dinner time.

Learning to speak is frustrating enough but add in extra languages and it gets messy (literally).

In our case our child has a English speaking mummy, a Spanish speaking daddy and his nursery was led by Dutch speakers. Oh and he got a smattering of Catalan too. Unless we were with Arabic speaking friends…

dictionaries photo

18 months came and went and my child, Sebastian, was getting increasingly frustrated but still barely spoke a word. Then we tried signing and it was a revelation. Goodbye toddler tantrums, adios sobbing fits. (Well at least those relating to speech… he would still cry if we refused him ice cream).

Sebastian understood that Mummy spoke one way, Papa another, and nursery staff yet a different way, but the signs remained constant.

He was happier, but he still didn’t speak.

Some of my family were concerned that he wouldn’t bother to learn to speak and would sign his way through life.

Fast forward a few more weeks and he morphed into a little chatterbox. He didn’t forget the signs, but they soon wore off in favour of the spoken words. In fact, today aged three he still remembers most signs better than me.

makaton photoPhoto by vallgall

Did signing actually help? I asked an expert, Dr Sean Pert, Senior Lecturer of Speech and Language at The University of Manchester and he said that:

‘The majority of bilingual children do not need additional support of any kind as they develop languages normally, as long as they have sufficient input in that particular language.’

He suggests that frustration is not necessarily a barrier towards learning a language but actually a motivation. He adds:

‘Codeswitching (using more than one language in a sentence) is very frequent in bilingual-to-bilingual speech, and is not a sign of confusion.’

spanglish photoSpanglish at its best. Photo by Vince Alongi

Meanwhile Alex Reed, Lead Practitioner at the Manchester Communication Academy trialled the teaching of vocabulary in French with sign language to investigate the effect on students’ language retention. He found that non native speakers of English who had been taught with the support of signing perfomed 32% better than those who learnt without.

There are many different views on using spoken and sign language it seems.

Returning from a Makaton workshop I asked a fellow mummy friend for her opinion and she was much less enthusiastic than me about the benefits of signing. Staff at her child’s nursery used Makaton but failed to speak properly to her child alongside, using one word instead of a proper sentence, or even an elaborate signing motion in silence. One of the many things I learned at my workshop was how essential it is to speak alongside signing however. In short it seems her nursery were doing it wrong.

Signing is perhaps most useful for those with speech and language difficulties but in my humble opinion Makaton did help my son and our family.

Just like children’s nursery rhymes with actions, Makaton is fun. In loud soft play zones the toilet sign comes in very handy. It was cute to see Sebastian communicate through signing (albeit on a very basic level) with a child with down syndrome.

child sign language photoPhoto by Lars Plougmann

I’m not claiming that Makaton will transform your child into a multilingual genius overnight and I know that research may be inconclusive at this stage, but I’m enjoying using it with Sebastian’s younger brother, Rafa.

My next workshop takes place in a couple of weeks and I’m unsure about some of the signs. Nevermind, Sebastian will correct me. ‘Oh mummy… ¡Que no! Así…’


For further information about Makaton, visit the website

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