What is language? Or better yet Why is language? That is a question that I asked during my initial research that resulted in the baby sign language movement. Not only was I investigating what is language but why do we have language? Why do we need to communicate with each other? And at what point do we realize that need in our evolution as a species and as an individual.
I’ve learned that language can be expressed in many ways. We express ourselves with music, in writing, with body movements, with dance and through various forms of visual arts. The most expressive forms of language are those that in a single word, image, movement, or sound can invoke an emotion or response from the recipient. We have some words or groups of words that solicit various levels of response. Our cultures have borrowed words and phrases from other cultures that represent what we intend to express but have no words in our own culture for those situations. Take the French term Deja Vu. It is frequently used in English to express that which there is no English word that equates the same meaning.
In American Sign Language the Deaf community has taken the concept of shared common experiences and shared emotions and equated a gesture or movement that represents that feeling, emotion, or situation that we all share. When attending gatherings with both Deaf and Hearing people, I found myself attempting to explain a sign for my hearing friends in which I must go into several examples or situations to express the subtleties that a sign or gesture represent. ASL has many signs that express what we all feel in many situations or feelings that we all share. Many are difficult to put into words. That is why we celebrate our poets who express thoughts and feelings so clearly or use analogies or metaphors to try to represent a feeling or an emotion.
American Sign Language uses motions, gestures, body language, and facial expressions to equate to the various situations, and feelings that we all share. Similar to the concept of the French using Deja vu to express the idea of having a sense or feeling like you've been someplace before even though you may not have been there.
Let’s return now to language and its use among humans. As babies are introduced to the world, they see through their eyes, hear with their ears, and feel with their sensations. From these senses they get a basic understanding of what is going on around them.
Babies understand things such as pain, pleasure, hunger, and all the very primal feelings that a young human experiences. Yet they have no words or ways to express their understanding of life mechanisms.
It takes 20 to 24 months for the vocal mechanism to mature to the point that children can articulate the various sounds in our global languages. During these months, a child can associate their situations and their feelings to the motions or gestures that they see modeled or displayed by their caregivers and can connect those gestures to the intended meaning if they are represented in context with the activities or situations that are present. This is also how children connect words to the situations.
All species have some form of communication that they use with which to express themselves. What my research indicated was that children can use some hand, arm gestures, and facial expressions combined together to express themselves much earlier than waiting for the vocal mechanism to mature and produce words.
With consistent presentation of sounds or gestures very young children can connect the words or signs caregivers use to what is happening around them. However, it's important that there's no stress put on a child to learn this form of communication. It must happen naturally and it must be presented to the child through repetition, consistency and love. The words or gestures a caregiver uses that responds to the needs of the child will stand out to the child as it satisfies their needs. This process when repeated confirms that a word or gesture/sign is connected to the action or situation that is happening. A child will associate the various gestures with what is occurring around them and start to begin to use those gestures to express themselves as they need.
Signing is the expressive vehicle that is available to them before their vocal mechanism matures and they can start to produce clear words. Children will transition from signs to speaking as their capacity to form words grows. The important thing is that they will have language far earlier than they will have words. That language will be in the form of gestures but their minds are organizing thoughts and they are learning to express their needs and desires using that structural mechanism and thought process to string together their ideas and express those ideas. That is the essence of language. Then, when the modality of expression changes from gestures to words, they already have a good basis of understanding.
Now it's just a matter of changing from signs to their spoken vocabulary. The signing gives them a chance to establish a good foundation of language and then use their signs or words to express that language. However, through signs their language foundation will have been established months earlier than waiting for just speech to take place.