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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Speech development

Developmentally, Mira has been right on track with every milestone except one: talking.  At her 18-month checkup, I spoke in depth with Mira's pediatrician about her delayed speech.  Not really because I was worried about it, but because he kept asking me about it like maybe *he* was worried.  At the time of that appointment, Mira would say mama, dada, and baby, but only when prompted.  (Me: "Mira, say mama."  Mira: "Mama.")  The doctor said these words didn't count toward her vocabulary because she wasn't using them on her own to express herself but rather just to mimic me.  She would also say several sound effects like boom, wheeee, and vroom.  She would use those independently, but the doctor said that sound effects don't count as far as determining how many "true words" she has in her vocabulary.  So that meant that, according to his standards, Mira had zero words at 18 months.  The expectation for kids that age is 5 to 10 words.

I knew Mira was behind because all of her little friends at playgroup are starting to talk, and many of them are several months younger than her.  But I wan't concerned about it.  I knew that delayed speech runs in the family (both sides).  And Mira is excellent at communicating non-verbally, through gestures or using the few signs she knows.  But the doctor was concerned, mostly for her hearing.  He asked me about a dozen questions about whether or not she could hear: does she turn her head at noises, does she respond to her name, does she startle at loud noises, etc.  I answered all his questions and told him that I was SURE she could hear because she follows my directions and responds physically in appropriate ways when I speak to her.  After much reassuring on my part, her doctor finally said that if I was sure she could hear, then we'd wait and readdress the issue at her 2-year checkup.  If she still wasn't talking by then, then we'd proceed with hearing tests and maybe speech therapy.

Even after seeing the doctor's concern, I still felt pretty confident that any day Mira would decide that talking was cool.  BUT I was starting to get a little anxious for it to happen.  A bunch of Mira's friends are talking and when I see them having little toddler conversations with their mommies, (I'll admit it) I get jealous.  I want to be able to talk *with* Mira the way they talk *with* their children, rather than just talking *at* her.  So I thought, ok if she's not ready to verbalize yet, maybe I'll just teach her more sign language.  So I started teaching her a ton of new signs.  And sure enough, she responded.  If I asked her to try to say something verbally, she would just shake her head "no".  But when I'd show her a new sign, she would immediately attempt to imitate it.  She responded well to me showing her how to hold her hands and fingers so that she could more accurately create the signs.  So in the month or so since her 18-month checkup, we've both been learning lots of new signs.  Mira's sign vocabulary has gone from just 2 or 3 words, all the way up to nearly 20 words.


Now Mira is finally starting to explore more verbally.  She babbles much more than she ever used to, and now sometimes when I ask her to try saying a word out loud, she will smile really big, think about it for a long time, and then say the word.  And when she does say words, she says them clearly and accurately, not like most toddler speech, which requires mommy translation to understand, her words are well formed and precise.  Now I think that when I would ask her to say something and she would just shake her head "no" it was because she knew she couldn't vocalize it *properly*, and she'd rather not try until she knew she could do it right.  A perfectionist, just like her mommy.

So here's the question: Is is causal that Mira started talking more right after she started expanding her sign vocabulary, or is it just a coincidence?  I'm honestly not sure.  On one hand, verbal speech requires a certain physical and mental dexterity to accomplish.  You have to have an idea in your head of how to say something and then you have to get your lips and tongue to comply with that idea.  Until children have reached a certain developmental place, it simply won't be possible for them to accomplish speech.  Perhaps Mira wasn't in that place until recently.  On the other hand, part of me wonders if she hasn't been in that place for a while now, but opening up her vocabulary with sign language got her a taste of what communication is all about and gave her the little push she needed to use her newly developed but undiscovered verbal skills.

But one thing is for sure, in my mind: the theory that teaching kids sign will delay verbal speech... yeah, totally debunked, based on my experience.

5 comments:

Marcy said...

Yay for you for being so self-assured as to your little girl's abilities to not be intimidated into fretting over this. It's so easy to get all worked up about milestones, forgetting that there's so much normal variability in when kids achieve them. It seems odd that her doctor would be so concerned about her hearing-- from your description, the way she responds to your directions and has learned and used a few signs (exhibiting great understanding for speech and responding to it), I would assume that neither hearing nor mental processing of language would be a concern.

I'm trying to think if there have ever even been any studies that showed that sign language delays speech... everything I've ever heard and read about it shows the exact opposite. Not to mention just how plain useful it is to help bridge the gap till they *can* vocalize! ; )

Laura said...

Thanks for your comment, Marcy. As far as studies on sign language delaying speech: I haven't seen any studies per se, but I think it's a common idea among some parents, as I've heard it expressed by several different people. I think it may stem from the thought that children brought up in a bilingual home do have delayed speech (and I think that one has been shown in studies, but I'm not positive). So then the same concept might apply to children who are taught both English and sign, if doing so counts as being bilingual.

I think the difference between teaching children two spoken languages vs teaching one verbal and one sign language is that when most hearing parents teach their children sign, they say the word verbally while doing the sign. So the child sees a visual interpretation of the word while simultaneously hearing a verbal interpretation of the word. There is no way to achieve the same effect with two spoken languages. So that would be my guess as to why you would see delayed speech in bilingual kids *unless* one of their languages is sign.

Anjea said...

Re: bilingual studies

In studies of bilingual children where they were tested for expressive and receptive language in only one language, they look delayed. However, only testing bilingual kids in one of their languages is inappropriate and invalid testing. The studies that look at their language skills when tested in both languages show that they actually have a much higher expressive and receptive vocabulary than their monolingual peers, even though they may not have the same vocabulary across both languages (e.g. having the word for "milk" in one language but not the other, etc.)

I'll leave it at that as to avoid any issues. :D I'm glad Mira is learning the signs to help her communicate more efficiently!

Laura said...

I see your point, Anjea.

Donna said...

Here's one thing that might help to encourage verbal expression: Having a Grandma who has immediately forgotten any sign language she ever was taught and keeps mixing up simple signs like "eat" and "more". But who would happily do WHATEVER if she could just figure it out! For such a frustrating adult, only a combined verbal/non-verbal approach may be effective!!! Mira's strategy - stand it the fence, point to the park, and say "go, go, go". THAT worked!!! ;)