Nursery Rhymes can be expressed in Sign language

Rhyme and Rhythm in Nursery Rhymes can be expressed in Sign Language too! But in a different way. Read on to find out how…

Humpty Dumpty the egg with a blue bowtie and yellow socks sits on a wall Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses,

And all the King’s men,

Couldn’t put Humpty

Together again.

I learnt these nursery rhymes when I was a wee kid. I flashed my hands in Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and they went round and round in the Wheels on the School Bus. But when the rest of the class was singing along enthusiastically I often waddled to the corner and found something else to do, just cos, my teacher did not sign very well.

There is a mass of research that shows knowing how to rhyme in music helps you improve your performance in language. Children learn different sounds by hearing them repeated in short sequences, like Humpty’s wall and fall. This teaches them to put different sounds together to make words.

Nursery Rhymes also help children practice their pitch and volume. We sit sedately with Humpty on the wall, then we raise our pitch when we say ‘oh no! Humpty Dumpty falls.’

Now now, what about sign language?

Yep! Sign language has rhyme too, but in the form of handshapes.

Let’s start with a simple example. This video shows a guy signing a short example about animals in American Sign Language (ASL).

You can see that the guy is linking the handshape of the number one to the handshape of the worm sign.

One for worm, two for frog, three for rooster….

I came across another elaborate example of handshape rhyming in ASL. Here, the “flat palm” handshape is used to describe a Thanksgiving dinner. This lady goes through an entire story where people plan, cook, smell, invite, share and wolf down food using the flat palmed handshape.

Sure, BSL is very different to ASL, but we use the same kinds of pace.  There are lots of ways we can rhyme in BSL.

There can be repetition of facial expressions, the place where the sign is made, and the direction the sign goes in. The body can move backwards and forwards or we could accelerate and decelerate our signing at certain places in a poem. (1) Whoa, sign language can rhyme!

Rhythm is also an important part of language. Rhythm includes being able to stress certain words and give them the right kind of timing or tone.

If we go back to the 1-2-3 video above we can see that the guy bounces his shoulders twice while signing ‘one,’ before moving to the right and signing ‘worm,’ also bouncing two times. He does this systematic double bouncing throughout the video, moving to the left and right for each sign. It is like he is stressing the signs and giving them a place.

Go on, have another look.

Strangely absorbing isn’t it? I believe that this natural rhythm provides the key for deaf children to learn the patterns in language. Yet, we don’t see many deaf children bobbing along to signed poems or songs using handshapes for a number of reasons bla blah. Is this one of the reasons why deaf children are bombing out so miserably on learning how to read and write?

Nursery rhymes that are sung are unique to the English language and sure, they can be translated into sign language. But they do not provide the same rhythmic experience as a rhymed poem in sign language. Let’s find ways to explore rhyme and rhythm in sign language. It can be quite fun I find.

Just cos, deaf children deserve to be entranced by poems too.


1-2-3 Animals by Jonathan McMillan and Leala Holcomb.

(1) Blondel and Miller (2001) ‘Movement and Rhythm in Nursery Rhymes in LSF,’ Sign Language Studies, vol. 2, no.1, pp.24-61.

3 thoughts on “Nursery Rhymes can be expressed in Sign language

    • Thanks for your comment Kayleigh Yes it takes a bit of work to figure out how rhymes can be shown in sign language. Whether it is translating English text into sign language to get the look and feel right, or making up new sign language rhymes. Do you have links with sign language teachers who can help you with this? You might want to check out Awti’s explanation on how rhymes can be translated into sign language here the important thing is to play with it all!

      • The linguistics teachers at the university here are way interested in signed languages as much as they are into spoken ones. So yeah I could ask them. But I’ll check out the link you’ve mentioned. It seems so fun to.

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