Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about using sign language to communicate with your baby that I’ve received over the years.
Feel free to comment below if you have a question that’s not answered here.
In general, the more signs your child regularly sees, the more he will use, and the broader the dialogue will be between the two of you. This is not always the case, though. Sometimes a child may be exposed to numerous signs but never make them because he sees no reason to use them. In this instance, he will understand far more signs than he actually uses. The onset of talking inevitably limits the number of signs your child learns. These children who use 50 to 100 signs in their fist two years do not necessarily add many more signs when they start speaking. Most have little use for more signs and tend to drop them altogether when they begin replacing the signs with words.
In this case, it is best to make the sign, and watch for your child’s version to emerge. Take note of how your baby approximates the sign. The hand will most likely correctly move, but it’s the specific finger shapes she will have trouble making. If you make up a sign, or your child makes up a sign for a word that has an ASL version, use the baby’s alternative sign. Then, as your child’s dexterity develops, slowly add the correct ASL sign alongside the alternative sign.
With time she will realize that both signs carry the same intended meaning, and then you can drop the alternative sign. Always acknowledge your baby’s creative nature and adopt any sign she creates. As you find the correct ASL version, parallel the two versions for a while and eventually drop the non-ASL version. In our family, we tended to keep the baby’s version and just remembered and used some of those signs until much later in our children’s lives. Remembering only one or two baby created signs was not difficult. We also made drawings of them for grandparents and other caregivers.
In some homes, signing SIT DOWN without articulating the words usually brings the required result. In addition, a simple look and a subtle use of the sign STOP could bring a more-or-less immediate halt to inappropriate behavior, while having the added benefit of preventing you from having to charge across the room.
Signing without words is also helpful when toilet-training your toddler. On the occasions when your child is out and about, he will often get so caught up in the excitement of the moment that an accident may occur before he is even aware of what is happening. As I mentioned, a sign can be a subtle reminder; with it you can avoid having to put him on the spot in front of friends.
Signs should not become more than delicate reminders. Parents must take care not to begin using signs as a disciplinary tool. I heard reports that some parents did this with their children aged two and under, and rightly caused some consternation.
Most children only begin to grasp the concept of sorry when they are about two to three years old, or older—at any rate, beyond the time that they require signs to communicate. I would urge you not to insist that your child sign SORRY before he fully comprehends its meaning. However, you as the parent can use the SORRY sign when you accidentally bump your child or step on a toe. Modeling signs like SORRY, PLEASE, and THANK YOU helps develop a foundation for later understanding and context.
• MORE and MILK
• DRINK and ALL GONE
• WHERE? and DOG
• WATER and WARM
• DADDY/MOMMY and WORK
• DON’T TOUCH and HURT
Your child will acquire the ability to combine signs from about 14 months old. Children who have an average signing vocabulary of 20 to 50 signs by their 12th to 14th month generally start creating short, signed sentences at around 14 to 17 months—although I have witnessed children as young as one year old producing full short sentences.
If you are following my program and this happens, comfort yourself—you are doing nothing wrong! And neither is your baby. Every child is different and they learn and produce signs at their own pace. Your child is processing language in her brain. That process takes time. Be patient—and keep signing.
We’ve been showing her signs for a long time now…
Just because your baby is not signing back does not mean that she is not taking it all in. Much of her learning takes place long before she displays any indication that she is learning anything. Her little mind is absorbing, developing and increasing her understanding of the world around her. Every waking moment can produce new perceptions for a baby. As she experiences an event again and again, she develops a visual record, connecting the event to the words and the signs you are making. The more consistent you are when making the signs, the faster she will make the connection. Be patient and never show disappointment. Eventually, she will begin to understand what the signs mean, and when she is ready she will begin to replicate them. The learning process for signing is similar to the learning process for speaking.
Babies develop at different speeds. The onset and amount of language expressed are dependent on factors such as individual personality, the learning environment, and how comprehensively significant people in the child’s life reinforce the vocabulary. Continuous exposure to the signs and a positive attitude in parenting dynamics greatly contribute to learning. Even though waiting for language to emerge may be frustrating for both you and your child, it is perfectly normal. It is important not to push language on a child. Let the child discover language and its use through her needs, and then she will expand from there. A child may become hesitant if she feels she must perform. At a time when your child is concentrating on learning something else—how to crawl, for instance—she may wait until one skill is solidly attained before beginning a new adventure.
Here is another consideration in the event your baby in not signing yet. After eight or nine months of parenting most of us are such good parents, and so good at predicting our children’s needs, that from the child’s perspective there may be very little reason to sign. Parents tend to meet their children’s requests all too eagerly, before the children have had a chance to engage their little minds and then ask for themselves. Although a parent should never withhold care pending sign production from a child, allowing a few seconds of space and setting up situations that promote sign usage is advantageous to development. Each successful engagement is dramatically important in relation to the next. If you never provide situations that encourage communication, none will result.
You feel you can anticipate her needs, which is great. Now you can use your anticipation as a tool. When you notice that your child is thirsty, for instance, instead of handing her a drink, pour it and set it slightly out of reach, in her sight-line. Using the sign, ask her if she would like a drink—and allow a few seconds for a response—never long enough for her to become frustrated, but long enough for her to remember what to do to obtain the drink. This approach is an essential part of assisting her to expand her communication skills.
Something else you could try, if an opportunity arises, is to show older children who associate with your child the signs you want your baby to learn. The fastest way to jump-start a baby into communication is to get her to interact with an older sibling or another child with signing skills. Studies show that given equal time, a baby can learn to sign from a young signer faster than she can from an adult.
The parent’s job is to provide an environment that stimulates communication. Your baby will be surprised when a sign fails to get her the expected results. However, seeing more signs and testing them to see the response she gets will stimulate her understanding that different signs achieve different results.
It is worth remembering that consistency and repetition are the keys to helping your baby understand. Keep using the signs in context, and sooner or later she will begin using the correct sign in its correct context.
At the same time, it has to be said that some sign hand-shapes do look similar and can be a little confusing to a young baby—like MILK and ORANGE JUICE, for example, which both use a squeezing hand. That is why keeping the signs in context is helpful to your baby and to you while she learns exactly what her first few signs mean. Parents encounter very much the same problem again when their child begins speaking — when she tries to say the two words — “ball” and “bird,”
for instance, and they both come out as “bah!” (Again, this is where signs are invaluable.)