Like all first time expecting parents, I knew everything. Not as much as people who don’t have kids, they’re the true experts. But one thing I knew for sure was that my children would be bilingual.
My wife and I are both sign language interpreters. Her parents are deaf. On top of that, we both have backgrounds in education and linguistics. We understood language acquisition. Our kids were going to learn American Sign Language (ASL). It was a no brainer.
“Oh! You should look into baby signs!” people would say to us when they found out our backgrounds.
This would be the cue for my wife and I to give each other a subtle look. “No,” we’d respond. “We’re just going to use regular ASL, like how children who grow up with ASL learn it.”
This usually lead to a short back and forth involving this neophyte explaining that baby signs were much easier for infants to pick up, us countering that baby signs are easier for parents and that all language is equally easy for babies to learn. After a couple minutes we’d lose our patience and politely find somewhere else to be. We knew what we were doing, and it wasn’t baby signs.
Fast-forward seven years. It turns out that raising bilingual kids is harder than I thought.
It’s difficult to want to use your second language at home
Basically, I didn’t have the fortitude to stick with it. There were three issues. One is easy to explain: I’m lazy. The second is tough to admit: as an interpreter I associated using ASL with work. Interpreting is mentally and physically exhausting, and after working long days I just didn’t have the mental energy to come home and process the world in my second language. For a child to acquire a language naturally they have to be exposed to it for long stretches. What I wanted at the end of the day was to cook dinner, have a beer, and just chill.
Even baby signs gets lost in translation
American Sign Language is not English. It isn’t based on English. It doesn’t want to be English. It is a separate and distinct language like any other, and as such it carries its own conversational norms. When I started teaching, interpreting my mentor helped me realize this through one sad fact: I’m not funny in sign language. This became an issue because my attempts to be clever in class were causing problems as my students weren’t getting it. The witty rapport and high-context conversations that many couples enjoy in one language also get lost in translation. The result is that the ways that my wife and I were accustomed to communicating didn’t work as well in ASL. Inside jokes or references to previous conversations were lost and created frustration.
I’m not as capable as a native sign language “speaker”
I understand that when you do something your whole life it becomes second nature, like Ted Williams hitting a baseball or a Justin Bieber having those haircuts. Deaf people have the ability to converse in ASL and do other things at the same time, like drive, or eat. I can’t do that. Trying get home after work and do the things that need to be done, like cooking and cleaning, proved impossible for me while trying to communicate to my family in ASL. I couldn’t spare the eye gaze to have meaningful conversations with my family. I might have been able to figure it out, but being a new parent in a new house and a new job had me flustered. I let that frustration overcome my desire to raise bilingual children.
The kids know we can hear them
This might be the biggest bilingual issue we had. Because we didn’t set the best foundation for them when they were babies they got used to hearing us and having us respond to them when they made sounds. During the stretches when we had the discipline to enact our bilingual program, the kids would simply reply to us in English. We could rarely convince them to try to reply in ASL, in part because it usually required us ignoring them until they tried signing through their tears.
The result of these failings has been that my two older children have a hate/love relationship with their second language of ASL. Until recently, they mostly hated our weekly sign language days at home and occasionally rebelled against it.
Our saving grace is that they adore their deaf grandparents. Nothing motivates them to sign like having my wife’s parents around. When they planned to stay with us when our third child was due, my son woke up on the morning they were arriving and said, “I can’t wait for grandma and grandpa to come so I can start learning sign language!” I died a little inside.
“Son,” I replied, “you could have been learning to sign this whole time and then you could just chat with them instead of having to start learning now.” He looked at me like I’d just suggested rearranging the furniture in his room. “THAT’S BEEN THE POINT ALL ALONG!!!!” I screamed silently in my head. But I knew it was really my fault he hadn’t taken to signing.
I’m happy to report my kids have gotten more into learning ASL as they’ve gotten older. It’s not how we planned it, but at least it’s happening. They don’t balk at ASL days now. They’re more willing to copy us and pick up new vocabulary. They’re getting better at using contextual clues to figure out what we’re saying to them.
We still have one baby left at our house, and she’s our last chance to raise a kid who is bilingual, who is comfortable with manual language from the start. She’s a year old now and starting to communicate well. Because this time I started with baby signs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roberto Santiago could never decide on a job so he endeavors to have all of them. He is a writer, teacher, sign language interpreter, rugby referee and stay-at-home dad. He writes about the intersections of family, sports and culture at An Interdisciplinary Life.