The Benefits of Signing with your Internationally Adopted Child

Susan Rizzo

Written by Susan Rizzo, Master Signing Time Academy Instructor

Simon, or Duan Qi, as he was called then, was completely starved for communication. At least, I have to believe he was. Why else would he have been signing back to us within a day? That’s right, within a day of “Gotcha,” our new son was communicating with us through signs. I had studied first-year Mandarin before our adoption trip, preparing myself to ask important questions like Are you hungry? and What is your favorite color?, only to learn that Simon had no expressive Chinese. That’s right, at nearly three years old, he was saying nothing. That is, until we got hold of him. By the second day we were together as a family, he was reliably signing EAT when he was hungry (which seemed to be all the time!) and, better yet, was accompanying his request with the sign for PLEASE. It doesn’t get better than that.

It was second nature for my husband and me to sign with Simon right away. For one thing, we’d signed with our first son from the time he was born. Toby had started signing back to us around 9 months, well before his spoken language started coming in, and had grown into a precociously verbal child with an insatiable interest in books. When he was just 12 months old, we discovered the Signing Time DVDs, and Toby became the first of our two children to develop a hard-core crush on program co-creator and star Rachel Coleman. (Kids just can’t resist her!) At that age, we focused primarily on the four Baby Signing Time volumes, which helped us introduce Toby not only to manners (PLEASE, THANK YOU, SORRY), but to all manner of other useful things (BABY, HURT, WHERE). We knew something was going right when, around 15 months and after only two or three viewings, Toby “read” the song title “Outside, Outside” on the screen and actually started singing the song before it started. Was it possible Toby was learning not only signs and music, but literacy, too? We think so.

So when we packed for China, you can bet we took our Baby Signing Time DVDs with us. We watched one with Simon every night before putting him to sleep. We were particularly grateful for the routine it established, because Simon, who was virtually inconsolable those first few days, only settled when watching the show. It was magical the effect the DVDs had on him. We could tell from his expressions how much he delighted in watching not only undeniably charismatic Rachel, but also all his peers, the toddler sign models. For my part, as the new mom to this child I had just met, I was particularly pleased to show Simon examples of strongly bonded parents and children. Look at the closeness early communication had fostered in these families! It was really a thing to behold, even for me, who had seen the DVDs many times before.

Signing offers so many benefits to children and families, including not only enhancement of parent-child bond, but reduced frustration and avoidance of “the terrible twos” (children don’t need to scream to get their point across), earlier speech with a wider vocabulary, increased IQ – the list goes on. These benefits are available to all children whose parents sign with them. However, they are especially salient in the context of international adoption. Clearly, each adoption is different. Variables include age of child at adoption, time (if any) spent in an institution and number of individuals responsible for care. However, despite differences at these levels, commonalities abound. With international adoption, your child, whether speaking yet or not, has been exposed since the womb to a cacophony of sounds probably very unlike she will encounter in her new home. If she is already speaking – great – she already has a grasp on communication. But, unless you happen to already be fluent in the language of your adopted child, pretty soon, you’re going to hit a receptive and expressive wall. Signs are easily learned and provide a terrific bridge between your child’s spoken language and yours. If your child is not yet speaking, then all the more reason for you to be proactive by providing easily accessible language input. Again, signs fit that bill, not only because they’re easy for you, as a busy parent, to learn and master, but because, due to their relative iconicity (as compared to spoken language), they are supremely comprehensible to children.

My intention, of course, is not to disparage other parents, but I don’t honestly know how we’d have survived the past four months since Simon’s adoption were we not signing with him. Immediately, he paid really good visual attention to us, because he hungered for the next sign we’d throw at him. Before we’d returned home from China, he already had a dozen or so signs under his belt. And now, while his spoken English is still developing, he uses easily 100 different American Sign Language (ASL) signs, which means he is confident in his ability to communicate with us, and we are confident in our ability to understand him. What’s more, all of Simon’s spoken words map to concepts he first mastered with signs, and those signs still help us differentiate between them when his speech is unclear. For his part, Simon is quickly becoming like every other 3-year-old, as evidenced by the fact that he now needs reminders to use one of his earliest signs – PLEASE.

Susan Rizzo is the mother of two boys, a doctoral candidate in linguistics, and owner of Our Hands Can, which offers Signing Time and Music Together classes in Chicago and its suburbs.