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Building Conversations
Visual motherese (for signing families)

Mother signing "more" with babyYour family has made a decision to use sign language with your baby. When educators explain how hearing parents talk with their babies, you need to know how to use signing in the same way.

Researchers have found that adults automatically change their speech in similar ways when they talk to children. They do not talk to children in the same way they talk to other adults. This adult-to-child talk includes the use of short, simple phrases and changes in the pitch of their voice (called motherese above). These changes make it easier for the child to learn language.

Deaf children may barely hear the pitch changes that parents put in their voices, but you can put the same important changes into your signs, your faces, and your bodies. When people ask questions, for example, the pitch of the voice goes up at the end of a yes-no question, and down at the end of a question starting with words like Where, When, Who, What, How or Why (a WH question). When we sign, our eyebrows and bodies replace pitch. The eyebrows go up for a yes-no question; they furrow, or go down for the WH question, as our bodies lean slightly forward. This part of signing is called facial grammar.

Hearing babies know when their parents are happy, worried, angry, or excited from their voices, even when the baby cannot see the parent's face. Your deaf baby needs to see your facial expression and your body movements to get the same information. Are you smiling, and letting your signs flow? Are you frowning and signing sharp, emphatic signs as you run to cover the electric outlet? Are you pretending to cry as you see a sad character in a story?

Practice Example

Here are some adults asking questions and responding to a baby's communication signal. Decide if the adult is using facial grammar to support communication or not using facial grammar.

Adult model: "Want more cereal?" eyebrows go up and body leans forward.

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Feedback: This adult used eyebrows and body to support the question.

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Adult model: "You want juice?"

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Feedback: This adult used eyebrows and body to support the question.

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Adult model: "See your sock?"

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Feedback: This model used eyebrows and body to support the question.

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