Or-How I Teach Our Toddler Language through Music and Sign

Iris singing in her “chapeau”

I have used music and sign language as a means introduce Iris to French and other languages. Since I teach a baby music class called Lullabees that has an increasingly ASL component, Iris’s first introduction to music and sign together the song Apples and Bananas. The signs for that song are I, Like, Eat, Apple and Banana.

Quickly, she wanted to learn some signs for Savez Vous Plantez Le Choux (Do you know how to plant a cabbage?) The signs for that silly song are Know, How, Plant, Cabbage, carrot, tomato, corn, arm, leg, foot and head.

I realized that having multiple languages including ASL allowed more communication opportunities for a tiny person because sometimes signs were easier than words and sometimes French was easier than English. For instance, Iris knew the sign for water but could not say it. Then at thirteen months, she heard the word for water in French, “Eau”, one time and glommed onto it with might so that it was the word for water which always went with the sign. It was easier to say and only at 18 months has she just begun to say “water”.

When we were first attending French class with Iris at Sponge School, I was very grateful that she knew a whole lot of baby sign because she wasn’t lost. She was only 14 months. When she did not understand something her French teacher said, she would look at me and I would sign the word to her and she would understand and then try to say it in French. As she swam this summer, she would say the English and then the French for her thoughts.  “Swim, Nage”  “Iris Dolphin. Iris Dauphin” “Kick Kick Kick. Tap Tap Tap.”

Now at 18 months, she really gets it. She gets that there are all of these different and fun ways to say the same thing.  Iris is using signs less as a way to communicate and understand as her English and French both become more proficient but I hope to introduce to her and the other children in my class a whole new set of signs for a couple of new songs to keep those new neural pathways open and flowing!

Sometimes I will tell her a word like an animal or vegetable in French, then English, then Spanish (which is a language I know much better than French which I am only learning myself) and occasionally Hebrew, if I can remember it. She will practice all of these and giggle in delight, shocking me days later with remembering a word in a new language she has heard one time.

I don’t worry that my French really isn’t any good yet because she picks up on the big stuff and forgives me the rest. I will sing a song or read a book in English and she will tell me she wants to hear it in French by saying “Francais”. I may not know all of the right nouns or verbs or tenses and occasionally I may accidentally throw some Spanish in there but I try my best and she is in heaven.  I don’t worry that I don’t know a ton of ASL either, if we want signs for our songs, we make some of them up.

Iris now prefers bedtime songs in French and when I run out of Fais Do Do and Claire De Lune, I have to write my own and Iris helps me by holding up her Owl stuffed animal. In French, he is Hibou and so I write a simple song about an owl falling asleep in the tree.

Because of sign and song, Iris at 18 months knows most of her numbers, colors, animals, vegetables, fruits and vehicles in both French and English. Our experience with language has changed forever how I feel about what babies are capable of. If we feel that something may be too difficult for our toddler or too advanced, are we depriving them of meaningful opportunities for communication.  I am realizing their minds are more developed, more intricate and capable than I can even fathom.