Sign Language for Babies

 Teaching sign language seems to be the one that is most widely accepted and least controversial of all of the early education programs that we have done with our children. That was not the case 20 years ago, but Rachel Coleman’s Baby Signing Time series, as well as the outbreak of signing classes available in many communities, have brought this technique to the mainstream. Reportedly, babies who learn to sign have fewer tantrums, have increased language comprehension, have feelings of accomplishment, and learn to speak easier.

My Story

My journey in teaching sign language to my children began with reading Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk from our local library. I became excited about how young children were learning to sign, and the sense of accomplishment that children were achieving when they know that they are being understood. The one caveat of this book is that many-if not most- of the signs in this program are not ASL, but rather are ones that babies made up themselves. The book encourages you to make up signs on the go in order to have a ready answer when your child shows interest in something. I was a little bit skeptical but open minded when I first read the book. After taking the initial effort of learning a decent ASL vocabulary myself, I discovered that ASL is often very intuitive, even more-so than the signs that were taught in the book. Why not teach a genuine language while you’re teaching your child? ASL is the method that we use in our home.  Admittedly, teaching real ASL requires more effort on the parent’s part than Baby Signs. While Baby Signs is better than nothing, my own learning of ASL was not that difficult. We checked out all of the Signing Time videos from the library, as well as a series made in the 1980’s called Say it With Sign , which I highly recommend if you have access to it. Another valuable resource I have used is this website: American Sign Language Browser . They have a visual dictionary that I have used countless times to look up words that have interested my children. I certainly can not say that I am fluent in sign language after my self-education, in fact watching the fluent still makes my head spin. What a beautiful language it is! I have gained an appreciation for the language and how it works. My limited vocabulary of about 200 words has been enough to help my children along, and we have been richly blessed by our efforts.

Peter’s Story

When Peter was a baby, I often had access to my husband’s double monitors that he needs for his work. If I wanted to do something on the computer and he wanted to be held, the most convenient thing for me to do was to put Baby Signing Time on one of the monitors while I did my browsing on the other. I am a little bit ashamed to say that Peter had A LOT of access to the videos. He watched them over and over, and loved it. Watching the babies sign showed him that children can learn to sign, and it gave him the motivation to try it himself.His first sign was actually at 7 1/2 months, and it was “milk”. He often would sign it while he cried to be fed. He loved his mommy’s milk! His second sign came at around 10 months and his vocabulary grew from there.
One of the things that baby sign language advocates purport is that children who learn to sign learn to speak earlier. This was true for us only in the long run. Peter certainly communicated with us earlier through signing, but his speech actually came slowly at first. At 18 months he knew well over 50 signs and would string two or three of them together often. However, his vocal vocabulary consisted only of “Mommy”, “Daddy”, “This” and occasionally, “That”. He correctly learned that “This” could mean anything his heart desired, and he stuck to it!
His vocabulary slowly grew until he was about 22 months, when a remarkable thing happened. Within a couple of weeks he went from having a vocabulary of about 10 words to fluently speaking full sentences. Something clicked for him, and almost overnight he gave up signing and started speaking. He has never looked back since, and for a two-year-old, he has a large vocabulary and remarkable diction. I know that much of this was because of the other programs we do in our home, but sign language played an important role as well.

Helen’s Story

My husband received a new computer for his work and the second monitor moved downstairs into his office. That is fine with me, I have less time to spend on the computer anyway with two little children. Virtually all of my time on the computer is in the morning while the children are asleep anyway. Helen has watched the Baby Signing Time videos, but not nearly as extensively as her older brother.She has thrived anyway. Peter has demonstrated that he has not forgotten his former education. I have been surprised at the signs he has shown Helen more than a year after he stopped using the signs himself. He is an eager tutor for his sister, and it has been a beautiful thing to see. My husband and I have also tried to model sign language whenever we can. Now I have learned enough sign language to feel confident in teaching her, whereas with Peter I was more hesitant. I had to look things up more often for him, and I am sure that some valuable teaching moments were lost that way. Not so with Helen. Very often she has pointed to something and I have actually been prepared to tell her and show her the sign for the item of interest. I am very grateful that I was prepared in that manner.
She is now 15 months old and her signing vocabulary is about 30 words. Her vocal vocabulary, like Peter, has been slow in the coming. She says “Momma”, “Dad”, and “nana” for banana. The point is, she is communicating, and because my husband and I, and even Peter, understand her, let her speech come when she is ready. I think I know how Rachel Coleman must feel, because it was really tricky getting her on video. Below is a sampling of her vocabulary:

Tips for Speech development

In closing, I wish to say that teaching American Sign Language to our children has been very rewarding. It contributed much to my son’s clear speech that he has today. There are other things we did that played an important role as well, and I wish to share a few of them.

  • No Baby Talk! I go so far as to re-phrase the baby-talk others give to my children. Perhaps a bit forward, but it is that important to me. By this I don’t mean the higher pitched sweet talk that tells the baby you are talking to them. I am referring to sentences like “Baby wanna sippy?” And then they wonder when their child says “Me want sippy!” Okay, I’m getting off my soap-box now…
  • Speak clearly to your children. People often comment on my son’s clear diction, and I know that much of it came from the clear diction he has heard at home. For example, his name is “Peter”, and I (almost!) never call him “Peder”. Speak in complete sentences. Avoid contractions, especially the improper ones like “wanna” and “gonna”.
  • Talk a lot about the things that interest your children, and point to the new vocabulary items as you talk about them. “Yes, the water is dripping from the faucet. See the water dripping? Drip! Drip! Drip! This is a faucet. Do you see the water dripping out? Look at the water collecting at the bottom! This is water. Water! Yes, the water is dripping from the faucet.”
  • Read to your children! Read a lot! Go to the library and check out lots of books. Keep your own library handy so that they can have easy access to lots of books.
  • Answer their questions as completely as you can, whenever you can. YouTube has been an ally in this endeavor. When my son shows an interest in something, for example, a tow truck, I talk about it and tell him what I know, but often I will later follow-up with a video showing a tow truck in action. I love technology!

Good luck communicating with your child! I hope that sign language can help you as much as it has our family.

About the Author Tamsyn Spackman

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