SIGN AND ESL
Can sign language be an effective tool for supporting the vocabulary development and expressive language skills of young children learning a second language? There is one study that set out to answer this question.
Itzel Mejia-Menendez taught her young children to sign and say new Spanish words. She found that her children were better able to recall their new vocabulary when she paired her instruction of each targeted word with a sign.
WHY SING AND SIGN?
Adding key signed words to songs you share with young children is a wonderful way to support early learning - including language, literacy and social-emotional development. Young children naturally respond to music by moving their bodies. Shaping the gestures required for signing words adds precision to their movement and and allows for musical and self-expression that is not limited to singing.
Pairing signs with key vocabulary in songs gives children opportunities to practice their new language skills. Youngsters who sing and sign in a group are able to reference one another to model the words they see and hear. The music and fun create social connection.
Joining friends to sing, sign and play makes participation less intimidating. It is easier to share words a child may feel unsure about including in conversation when he is caught up in the joy and momentum of singing and signing with others.
Here are a few ways that combining sign and song can support young children who are learning to speak English as a second language.
A BRIDGE OF COMPREHENSION
Signs become a conceptual bridge between the word spoken or sung in both languages. Consider a young child who attends a preschool where his teachers and peers primarily speak English, while he speaks Spanish at home. By signing the word DOG as you say or sing both "dog" and "perro," he begins to understand that both words refer to the same furry creature.
SEE AND SAY
The majority of human beings prefer to learn by looking. Pictures, toy versions of the words you teach and the visual representations or "hand pictures" the signs create all give language learners information that helps them build their vocabulary. Visuals can also take some of the anxiety out of learning a second language when every spoken word and interaction feels like a guessing game. "What is teacher asking me to do?" "What is the name of the snack food I want to choose?" "How can I ask my friend for my favorite toy?"
HONOR HIS SILENCE
There is often a period of silent observation before a child begins to say the new words he is learning. This may occur because he is worried he cannot speak the words perfectly. Singing and signing as a part of a group gives him an opportunity to demonstrate his receptive language skills, or his ability to understand the meaning of words. Let him point to the bird on the page of a book or show you he knows what comes next in the song by clapping or stomping to the beat. His motor participation will allow him to joyfully contribute to the music until he is ready to sing words.
YOU ARE SPEAKING MY LANGUAGE
Whenever possible, share songs or sentences in the child's home language. Your efforts honor his culture and family and your words are truly music to the young child's ears! You can get started today with my "Clap your Hands" motor song. I performed the song in Spanish with the help of Spanish speaker and educator Libia Kozisek. I am not a native Spanish speaker, but I enjoyed singing the song for you.
¡Que te diviertas! (Have fun!)
Mejia-Menendez, I. (2016). The effects of sign language on second language acquisition. (Unpublished master’s thesis, Saint Catherine University, Saint Paul, Minnesota). Retrieved from https://sophia.stkate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1191&context=maed
CLICK HERE to access your FREE DOWNLOAD of Anne singing the folk song "Clap your Hands" in both Spanish and English. Clap, stomp, dance and sign the word "music" as you sing along! Lyrics in both languages and suggestions for sign and movement are included.
For more fun songs, signs, activities and information about how to support a variety of early learning skills, check out Anne's newest book, SING & SIGN: A GUIDE FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD PROFESSIONALS (Brookes Publishing, Fall 2020).
ANNE MEEKER WATSON, Ph.D., is the creator of the SING.PLAY.LOVE.® program. Through her writing, research, product development and workshops, she shares information about the benefits of music and play for supporting early learning and kindergarten readiness, and gives easy and practical strategies for embedding both into the daily lives of young children.