first words

February 25, 2010 ASL, attachment activities, Stefanie, travel tips 8 Comments

Adoption is a roller coaster.

And meeting and spending those first few day getting to know your child can be one of the most wonderful times of your life.

It can also be pretty tough.

One of the issues we’ve encountered with almost all of our adoptions is difficultly in the department of communication. Obviously, when you adopt from China, your new child speaks and understands a completely different language. And even if your child isn’t verbal yet, they definitely have wants and needs. And a need to express those wants and needs. So, regardless of your new child’s age, communication is certain to be an issue.

One thing that has been a huge help to us as we have navigated those days, weeks and sometimes months of not quite understanding each other is ASL. American Sign Language. We learned about ASL and it’s benefits as we were seeking out answers for speech issues with our oldest biological son, over ten years ago. We were intrigued and so invested some time and a few dollars in this book


And we were not disappointed. The signs were easy to learn, logical and easy to remember and use. And they covered basics: “mama”, “daddy”, “more”, “eat”, “drink”, “bottle”, “bath”, “play”, “boo boo”, “outside”, and the very necessary “no no”.

When we traveled to adopt our daughter Isabelle, we used these same words we had learned to use with our son years before. And although she was only 11 months at adoption, it didn’t take her long to catch on to a few signs and begin signing herself. Some of her first “words” were the signs: “more” and “mama”. And yes, it is definitely just as sweet seeing a first word as it is hearing it.

Eventually we purchased some signing flash cards that had additional words for her to learn, and she enjoyed looking at and playing with the cards as much as she did learning the new words.

asl cards

In fact, all her older siblings enjoyed learning the new signs as well. Learning to sign a few basic words was more fun and functional that any of us could have imagined.

Now, as we navigate the weeks and months of being home with our new daughter Vivienne, we find ourselves depending on these signs again to ease the lumps and bumps of communication breakdown. Two at adoption, she has a wonderful grasp of Chinese and even though we’ve been home a month, she isn’t about to let go of her native tongue.

So signing has been a blessed compromise and although Vivienne has yet to spontaneously sign to us, she does love to imitate us when we sign to her. Teaching her to sign “please” was one of the first things she and I worked on in China, for our family this particular sign has been a lifesaver over the years. If Vivienne wanted something, but couldn’t stop crying over it, I’d insist she at least try to sign it (“please” is a circular motion on the chest) and, in order to sign, she’d have to stop crying. Sort of like chewing gum and patting your head at the same time, you can do it, it’s just not very easy. So just like that, our impasse was resolved. She’d stop crying and ask nicely (if even by just making an attempt to imitate the sign) and I would be able to give her what she wanted. Not necessarily rocket science, but it sure has helped us keep our sanity on numerous occasions.

I hope this might be helpful to someone preparing to travel to China for their little one.

If you have a travel tip of your own, please leave a comment, I’d love to compile and post a list to help future travelers 🙂

8 responses to “first words”

  1. TanyaLea says:

    GREAT post, Stefanie! I've seen others who have used sign, but wasn't sure if it would be that helpful or not…obviously it IS! Are these still the books and flashcards you would recommend?

    Also, we will be in Fuzhou with Khloe, and I do believe that is where you were with Jude, correct?! Any tips?! How/what to pack, etc. I'm novice and nervous!! (excited, too!) You have my email, so just hit me back with any advice you may have. I'm starting to make lists!!


  2. Kim says:

    I love it! One more common thread in our lives. We are HUGE ASL fans and used baby signs with Sam who was speech delayed. The whole family got into it and although Sam is talking nonstop now, those signs still come in handy when we are out in public and need to remind our kids to say please, thank you, no, stop, be quiet, etc.
    Great post!
    Love & Blessings from Hong Kong,

  3. Debby says:

    I was glad that you stated that you are using an ASL based program. Many parents make the "mistake" of using Baby Signs…not ASL based sign language. The problem with that is IF you actually end up needing signs for communication down the rd, & you use Baby Signs, no one will understand your child.
    Save yourself a tremendous headache & just teach the correct signs from the start. My 2 cents….

  4. Eileen says:

    I never used sign language with my other babies, but a friend got me a "Signing Time" video when we brought Maya home, and it was such a huge help to her in the language department. I worried that possibly learning signs would delay her spoken language, but that wasn't the case at all. The signs helped her to understand what she was saying. Before, she was a little parrot and she'd say things, but it was obvious that the meaning wasn't there. Once she got a sign for something, it was like turning on a light. She'd do that sign and say the word along with it and I could tell that the meaning was there.

    I can't recommend the Signing Time videos enough. They're done by a mom with her deaf daughter and their hearing nephew/cousin. They have cute songs and my toddler never got tired of them. We bought several in the series and loved every one.

    A favorite signing moment was when Maya was about 15 months old. There's a certain man from our church who is nice and harmless, but tends to lack some social cues and stands too close or talks too loud. One day he was right in poor Maya's face, and I could see that she wasn't loving this interaction. She ran toward me, her eyes big, signing SCARED! Yes, I had to agree, he was a little scary!

  5. Amy says:

    I have to put in a plug for Signing Time. It saved our lives! My daughter came home with cleft palate, and had little speech. We started watching Signing Time as a family (we didn't know ASL either), and she easily picked it up and was able to communicate basic needs/wants.

    Great post!

  6. Terynn says:

    As a pediatric speech/langauge pathologist, I heartily endorse the use of sign language to bridge a language barrier, to assist a nonverbal child, a language delayed child, a hearing impaired child, etc., etc., etc. I am a BIG FAN.

    Keep up the good work, Mamas!!

  7. Goodness and Mercy Mom says:

    What a great idea to use sign language! I wish I had thought of it when we were adopting our son from Guatemala. Fortunately I knew enough Spanish to get by and our son has learned English quickly. But Chinese with a toddler–now that would be a challenge.

    As far as tips for traveling, since our son was older when we brought him home (9 years), I bought him his own rolling backpack. I had a little photo album with pics of his new home and room and letters from different members of our immediate and extended family. I also gave him things that I had in my own carry-on–breath mints and gum, hand sanitizer, pretend cell phone, sunglasses, activity books and crayons, snacks, etc. After a life of having nothing that was just his, he loved having his own stuff and toted it proudly through the airports. I also gave him a stuffed animal and blanket. Not a big deal to American nine year olds, but a big deal to him since they weren't allowed in the orphanage (due to lice problem).

    If adopting a younger child, bubbles always seems to be a universal ice breaker. I teach 2 year olds at church and something about a crazy lady blowing bubbles makes them forget why they were so upset about being in my classroom. Other passengers probably wouldn't appreciate the bubbles on the plane, but they might help in the hotel or during airport layovers. (And don't forget to pack in a baggie so airport security doesn't take it.)


  8. The Gang's Momma! says:

    When we were raising our bio kids (so many moons ago!) we were totally turned off to the whole baby sign thing, as we saw too many folks using it as part of a rather rigid, controlling parenting philosophy. It felt as if they were "silencing" their children for the cause of "peace" in the home and we didn't define "peace" as silence. But when we started researching information about Microtia and Unilateral hearing loss, we bit the bullet and learned a few signs to help us along the way. The ironic thing? Now Li'l Empress's therapists have asked us to discontinue all signing by age 3 (she's lost most of it by now anyway!) so that her listening and speaking skills continue to sharpen and develop. I remember commenting to the IA clinic director that it was a big leap for me to give it a whirl, as I'd been so turned off to it in the early years of its beginning popularity . . . She actually knew what I was talking when I said I disliked the "children should be seen and not heard" mentality but encouraged me to look at this differently. It was a big tool for us in the first months of being home.

    And now?! Sometimes I might be (more) tempted to define "peace" as silence. OR at the least, a hushed quiet 🙂

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