What is Baby Sign Language?
Baby Sign Language is a collection of signs to assist parents/carers and educators, in facilitating early communication with their pre-verbal babies. It is also a wonderful tool used to help motivate children with their learning of literacy and mathematics. Baby Sign Language is exposing your child to gestures or the vocabulary of a second language, such as ASL.
Baby Sign Language is easy to use with no prior signing knowledge or experience. You are probably already exposing your child to some proper signs, without even realizing it.
Why should I sign to my baby?
Babies who learn Sign Language are able to communicate their wants and needs, so it makes sense that they would be happier and less frustrated. Dr. Marilyn Daniels supports this idea. 'Given that babies have an awareness of their wants and needs before they can form words and sentences. Sign Language empowers them by providing them with the tools to express their wants and needs with specific hand movements and gestures so parents and caregivers can understand and respond appropriately.'
Sign language facilitates verbal language development
Studies have discovered that speaking and signing with infants actually improves their expressive and receptive language skills. As you speak and sign your child/ren are making the connections. Dr. Acredolo, Goodwyn and Brown mention in their paper, 'that just as crawling motivate children to walk, so too does signing motivate children to talk.'
The thing to remember here is that you are speaking and signing with your child, not just signing.
Signing & speaking increases whole brain development
Dr. Daniels is professor of Speech communication and also author of "Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy" she states, that 'babies eyes develop very early and when information is taken in with the eyes the right brain is being used. All languages are stored in the left brain, so when babies are exposed to Sign and speech, both the right and left brain are being used.' She says '… this is a wonderful advantage because you are using both hemispheres of the brain, building more synapses (junction of two nerve cells) in the brain.'
Dr. Daniels said, 'when hearing babies learn Sign Language, their brains develop further than babies who learn no second language.' She states when a child is exposed to a second language or it's vocabulary it is stored in a different area in the brain than their first language, therefore they have an additional place for search and recall.
Why teach ASL and not other signs?
Dr. Joseph Garcia and Dr. Marilyn Daniels argue that exposing your child to a sign language used by the Deaf community is more beneficial for your child than exposing them to made up gestures or alternative signs for the following reasons:
- It provides the advantage of a bilingual setting. You are exposing your child literally to a second language.
- It also furthers brain development as a second language is stored in a different area of the brain than the first language.
- It offers the advantage of standardisation and consistency – An increasing amount of child care centres are using ASL as a way of facilitating communication and fostering calmness in the environment.
- In America it fulfils high school foreign language requirements.
Why is there not one universal sign language?
There is not one universal sign language. Just as there are different spoken languages around the world, so too are there different sign languages, i.e. French Sign Language, British Sign Language, American Sign Language and Australian Sign Language.
Sign Languages have been developing amongst individual Deaf communities around the world for centuries. Schools for the Deaf have been established since the 1500's and have relied on these Deaf communities to establish a way of communicating and educating the Deaf.
How do I use sign language with my child?
Using sign language is very simple. You just talk normally with your child but sign the words you want your baby to learn. The basics are words like 'milk,' 'done,' 'more,' & 'food.' When you feel more confident you can build on this by offering other frequently used words like, 'Bath time,' 'Bed time,' 'Change nappy,' 'banana,' 'apple,' etc… Later when you are feeling more confident you can start to sign more than one word in a sentence, i.e. 'Are you done eating your food?'
The key is consistency. Try to remember to sign every time you say the word that you want your baby to learn. Also reinforce that sign with an object i.e. show them the bottle of milk. This way, they can make the connection with the word, sign and object. Also when you say and sign a word in a sentence, repeat just the word again with the sign, that way you are isolating the word with the sign and reinforcing it for your baby.
You can also reinforce signs if your baby does a sign by 'accident.' You can encourage them with words of praise, repeating the word they 'accidently' signed and signing it and then showing them the object.
Now signing does not come naturally to us, so don't worry if you forget to sign your chosen word/s every now and then. Also our hands can often be full, so just do what you can, when you can and have fun.
When should I start signing to my baby?
I recommend that you start signing to your baby around 2 months onwards. Baby's eyes develop very early and hand coordination begins around 4 months. I also advocate signing right through to 7 years old and therefore say: it is never too late to start signing with your child.
Around 16 months they are developing some speech, this is a critical time where communication becomes incredibly important to them and there will be many words they will not be able to pronounce and may get frustrated as a result. Signing words to transmit their meaning can help relieve some of that frustration for both you and your child.
Around 20 months, sign language is useful with words like 'patience,' 'wait' and emotions that they may feel. These are difficult concepts to grasp as they are abstract ideas. However when you use these words with sign language, these abstract ideas becomes more concrete. Signing can also offer a form of distraction when they want something immediately.
Sign language is a great educational tool, around 22 months they are able to learn their colors and around 32 months onwards they can begin learning their numbers and the alphabet. Since sign language is so visual and kinesthetic, children are more likely to remember what it is you are teaching them. Children are fascinated with hand movements. If children are captivated and involved in their learning process, then they will be motivated to keep learning and are better able to remember what is being taught.
When will my baby start signing back?
Babies as young as six months can begin signing their first word. My child signed his first word at eleven months, then after that he started signing a lot more. Moms have come up to me and told me that their daughter or son started signing to them at six months or eight months.
Usually the signing will come on very slow and then pick up. Every child is different and develops at different stages. Keep it light and fun. Singing songs or reading children's books in sign language can help do this and is an easy way of introducing words in sign language. It is important not to stress about it as your child may pick up on this stress.
Try and be consistent. It is a fact that babies gesture naturally before they can speak and when your baby does sign his or her first word, you will be motivated to keep going.
Sign Language Workshops
Whenever possible, it is advisable to attend sign language workshops. Learning sign language face to face can diminish any ambiguity that books may cause. It also brings to life the beautiful language and is far more enjoyable when using it to interact with others in a class setting.
A few signs to help you get started
Fingertips of right & left hand tap each other twice
Right hand opens & closes. Like milking a cow.
Right palm on chest. Rub chest in clockwise circles.
Right '5' hand, Thumb on chin. Tap chin twice.
Tiny Hands Talk is looking for Independent Educational Consultants to run their own Baby Sign language business. Please visit www.tinyhandstalk.ca for more information.
Daniels, M. (2001). Dancing with Words: Signing for hearing children's literacy. Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey.
Goodwyn, S., Acredolo, L. & Brown, C. (2000) Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 24(2): 81-103.
Kokette, S. (2000) Sign Language: The best second language? Little Signers. Available at http://littlesigners.com/article14.html
Wilson, R., Teague, J. & Teague, M. (1985). The use of signing and fingerspelling to improve spelling performance with hearing children. Reading Psychology. 4: 267-273.