As a former language teacher I am no stranger to language acquisition theories and techniques. But I write now as a Mum to other parents, rather than as a professional...
When Mia was born I knew baby signing was a good idea in theory, but never got any further than buying a rather dry looking book. She was quick to speak, parenting for the first time was a challenge and the moment passed.
However, when Natty was born with Down's Syndrome and Makaton was suggested, it was a whole new ball game. This time signing was a necessity, wasn't it?
Initially, in those early months of shock I recoiled from the word 'disability', threw away any leaflet containing the word, denied additional help. In a way I was right, Natty is 'Natty' first, her developmental delay and learning disability is definately way down on the list, she is just 'one of the gang'.
However, she does have additional needs and I needed to come to terms with what they were. I remember thinking 'Oh no, do we have to learn sign language.' perhaps in denial about her disability. Then I gave it some thought and still I wondered 'Maybe the Makaton will delay her actually talking'. Perhaps the signing was a physical manifestation of Natty's differences that I wanted to ignore. Of course I knew, in my professional brain, the one that used to get adult business people doing ridiculous gestures in a circle to memorise new vocabulary, that doing 2 things at once can only enhance and accelerate language learning.
You're at a party. You are introduced to someone new. They tell you their name, 'Hello, I'm Hayley.' Instantly forgotten.
But imagine that she trills 'Hello, I'm Hayley', whilst simultaneously spinning, ballerina-esque, clockwise at 100 rpm on her right toes. Would you be so likely to forget her name then? It's the same reason we learn lyrics to songs more easily than the same words written down in bland text on white paper. Kinesthetic learning.
In short, Makaton supports, backs up, speeds up and develops language learning for children with speech delay. It gives two different types of input for every word, an extra hook to hang the word on if you like, since you say it clearly as you sign to them every time. You don't have to learn a lot of signs at once, because your child will let you know what they want to say, and you will only need 10 or so words at a time, so don't be daunted or put off. Natty's first signed words were 'Mum', 'Dad', 'Cake' and 'Chocolate'... quickly followed by 'Chocolate cake!' coupled with a sharp pointing motion at the high up treats cupboard!
I can't recall exactly how old she was then, around 18 months, or 2 years old I guess. But here is the next vital point about signing to your child. It will reduce the frustration of the toddler years. This applies to all children, but if your child has language delay and knows what they want to say to you and can't vocalise it they will become frustrated. Very frustrated. Can you imagine being 3 years old and wanting a glass of water and not being able to communicate it? Teaching them to sign these vital needs will not only ease frustration for you both, but will also likely bring about the speech you all crave sooner than not using signs at all.
And the beauty of it all is that when youngster have mastered a word, they naturally drop the sign. They drop it of their own accord, you don't have to worry or interfere. Signing will not delay or prevent your child from speaking. The cute thing is though, that Natty will reintroduce signs if she is super excited (particularly 'YESSS') or in a new situation. If she is over stimulated or being a bit naughty, it focuses her, calms her down and makes her listen to what is being said to her.
We use Makaton a lot for more abstract concepts these days, such as colours, emotions and currently Days of the Week. This will continue as long as Natty needs new ideas explaining to her.
We learnt all we needed to start from Mr Tumble, Singing Hands and Dave Benson Phillips DVDs plus free Makaton downloads, materials to buy and info available from The Makaton Charity plus a crash course from SALT.
So, give it a go. Don't be afraid. Seek support if you need it. And learn to love Makaton.
After all, without it, how else can you sign across a crowded room to your Mum that you need the toilet, or indicate to her that you want a drink when your mouth is too full of food to talk. And how else can you emotionally blackmail your Dad when he leaves for work, unless you can sign 'sad' doefully out of the window as he drives away? Very clever signing!
Seems yes, we do need Makaton.
For more from Hayley, visit her blog: Downs Side Up
I Love You Natty: a sibling's uplifting introduction to Down's syndrome
Big sister Mia has published a ground-breaking book to help other children who become siblings to a child with Down’s syndrome. Written with the help of her mother, Hayley, Mia’s drawings and family photographs complete this beautiful first introduction to Trisomy 21.