One thing that really seemed to help K make the connection between words and their meanings was sign language. Apo and I used the same sign in our different languages so that K was able to quickly associate the object, sign, English word and Slovak word as the same thing. She used her first sign (food) at 14 months, after several months of us signing to her and talking to her and all of us being frustrated because she didn’t understand ANYTHING. I could repeat to her 500 times “ball, this is a ball, let’s play with the ball” with no response from her, but within two days of introducing the sign “ball”, she understood the sign and the word, together AND separately. The same thing happened with all the signs we used (only 10 – 15 total), once she learned the first one and got the concept. It was like she needed the sign to anchor the word and object together in her mind. After that she was able to learn a word just from hearing it. Apo had the same experience with her comprehension of Slovak. I’m not sure if the signing was really the sole catalyst or if she was just due for a language burst at that particular age anyway, but the difference was pretty striking.
She was also visibly impressed with herself when she learned to sign. You could see the satisfaction on her face, and the power: I make this motion, and I get a snack! Score! I think it was the very next day after she first signed “food” that she used it as a bedtime delaying tactic. Apo took her upstairs to bed and she kept signing “food”, really, I’m hungry, I can’t go to sleep yet. I had thought only bigger kids did that! And especially when she learned “milk”, she woke up signing, she went to sleep signing, she signed IN her sleep. That first week we happened to look in the back seat and realized she was silently signing “food” in her rear-facing carseat.* So we gave her a snack.
We only took signing as far as the 10 to 15 signs that I bothered to learn, and the few she made up herself, but I think that she would enjoy signing even still, if I actually knew sign language to be teaching her. It kind of takes away from the spontaneity of the moment when you see an airplane, run to the computer, look at your online ASL dictionary for an appropriate sign (some are too complicated or too similar to each other, etc.), learn it, run back and say, “Look, an airplane [sign]!” Meanwhile the airplane is probably over the English Channel by now. She still signs sometimes, especially if she says something we don’t understand. I’ve noticed she has her own “signs” for animals that she consistently uses in the same way, e.g. snake, monkey, bird. Recently she has come up with signs for panties and swinging (or playground in general). Signing is also useful for discreet communication or across a room. I liked having a sign for breastfeeding that was more subtle than some of the code words I’ve heard.**
I also think signing can be an excellent tool for multilingual families if everyone agrees on one sign to use. Baby K quickly learned that “milk” and “mliečko” are both accompanied by the same sign and mean that she gets milk. It took her longer to make the connection between words that we didn’t have signs for. Our experience was definitely that it stimulates speech, not holding it back as you might think. At least for our child, the research didn’t lie!
* You have to wonder how long she’d been at that.
** I think “na na” or “num num” or whatever baby words people use are kind of transparent. :) Of course when the child gets to the point of reaching down your shirt and attempting to help herself all subtlety is gone…