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Teaching Your Baby Sign Language

©iStockphoto.com/snapphoto

©iStockphoto.com/snapphoto

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by Wyatt Myers
August 17, 2010

When Stephanie Adams, the toddler lead teacher at the Baylor University child care center, takes visitors into her classroom, they swear her students act, react, and behave more like 10-year-olds than 2-year-olds. And though she can’t prove it, Adams believes that the sign language she has taught them since the age of six months might have something to do with it.

“I think it helps them not only communicate, but also develop faster emotionally,” says Adams. “We taught them signs for feelings, like ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ and ‘frustrated.’ Before they could talk, instead of throwing a tantrum, the kids could just let me know how they felt with sign language.”

Adams has been working with many of this small group of children for 18 months, starting when they were 6 months old with the signs “eat,” “more” and “all done.” She continued adding three signs at a time as the children grew. “We started mostly with signs about eating. ‘Drink,’ ‘milk’ and ‘water’ were next,” she says. “Then we learned ‘help,’ and we moved on to other interests like ‘dog,’ ‘cat’ and ‘phone.’”

How sign language helps
Adams is a big believer in the power of sign language, not only to help children communicate at a very young age, but also to help them grow and mature earlier than you might expect. And research seems to support her notions. “Benefits of sign language in an infant’s development include providing a foundation on which to learn written English and build speech, reducing frustration and building self-esteem and confidence, opening up receptive and expressive interactive communication prior to speech development, and developing cognitive abilities earlier,” says Tami Hossler, MA Ed., editor of The Endeavor Magazine for the American Society for Deaf Children (ASDC).

Over the years, dozens of studies have shown the benefits of sign language for infants. Joseph Garcia was a pioneer in this field, and among his findings were that 6-month-olds who are exposed regularly to sign language can begin communicating expressively by the time they are 8 or 9 months old. A recent study showed that children exposed to early sign language had I.Q. scores that were 8 to 13 points higher than non-signers at age 8.

One misconception about sign language with infants is that it delays speech development, but, according to Hossler, this notion has been disproved in studies. “There is no evidence that signing removes a child’s motivation to speak or interferes with learning to speak, and sign language learned after speech will not affect how often a child uses their voice,” she says.

This unfounded fear has been almost universally debunked in studies over the years. In fact, in the most recent study published in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology in 2009, the researchers found that not only did sign language not delay speech, but that children would gradually phase it out on their own, without prompting, as they reached the age of 2 years.

 

How to use sign language at home
If you’re interested in teaching your kids sign language at home, our experts have a few tips that can help.

  • Only use American Sign Language. There are some infant sign language books on the market that offer signs that are inconsistent with the signs of American Sign Language (ASL). While some of these signs might be easier for baby to do, it’s important to stick with ASL, which is universal and taught to children of all languages. According to Hossler, some good resources include: www.everydayasl.com, www.signingtime.com, and www.babysigns.com. Many of these sources have online video libraries, as well.

 

  • Start young. Research indicates that children can begin learning the signs as early as 6 months, but you can start working even younger if you’d like, says Hossler. “Language begins at birth, and you can start to sign with your baby right away,” she says. “Babies receptively take in language as soon as they can focus.”

 

  • Start with three words. Work on three words at a time, introducing new signs once the child is starting to use the first set of signs. Add the new signs into the mix with the learned signs so that their signing vocabulary grows. Says Adams, “Babies learn at their own pace, so it’s important to use a lot of repetition and take it slow.”
  • Start by signing about what they are doing. Young infants spend a lot of time eating, so it’s a good idea to start with signs about eating so that they can begin to understand what you are referencing. “At first, babies put meaning to objects, and not words alone,” says Adams. “Signing to them about something they are doing, holding, or seeing is important in creating recognition.”

 

  • Be consistent and persistent. Just as you talk to your baby in slow, simple sentences, you should take a similar approach to sign language, says Hossler. Speak and sign slowly and in a drawn-out fashion, and make sure you have your baby’s full attention. And, be persistent. Eventually, you will be amazed as your baby begins to sign back to you her wants and needs.
  • JeneeLyn

    I have done some baby signs with all 3 of my children and loved it. It was wonderful to be able to communicate before they could talk and definitely reduced tears and frustration. My 2nd daughter was a prolific signer and even made up some of her own. I always encourge parents to give it a try. Thanks for the article.

  • http://www.thebeanbagstore.com Kelly Stone

    Thanks for the reminder about the importance of signing with babies.

    Kelly

  • Amber

    I have to correct you on the point that ASL is ‘universal’ or taught to children of all languages!

    It is commonplace in America, but it is *American* Sign Language. Britain has British Sign Language (BSL), Australia has Australian Sign Language… and so on and so forth. As well as country specific sign languages, there is also a simplified version taught to children with special educational needs, known as Makaton.

    In effect it doesn’t matter which sign language you use with your baby, so long as you are consistent, but it makes sense to use whatever is regionally or culturally appropriate – pick whatever your child is most likely to come into contact with, and use that. Check your source material’s origins before adopting any new signs.

    I am a massive fan of baby signing. It has given our daughter an amazing ability to express herself at an early age and I would recommend it to anyone.