Teaching Your Baby Sign Language
This article from the Atlanta Parent Magazine's August Issue is excellent at explaining the benefits of teaching your baby sign language and lays to rest some of the misconceptions of baby signing as well.
Talk to the Hand
Teaching your baby sign language
by Eve Dennard-Lewis
What do you do when your baby gives you the finger? When she points upstairs with her index finger and mumbles, do you pretend to understand? Does she get frustrated when you misinterpret her message?
When babies want to communicate, they babble, whine, coo or cry to get your attention. Most parents must play the guessing game to figure out what their child is suggesting or impatiently demanding. That is, unless they know sign language.
Most babies use sign language on a small scale before communicating verbally. When babies wave goodbye or lift their arms to be picked up, they are “talking” with signs. But what happens when little ones point and mumble but parents don’t quite get the message?
Parents are realizing that adding more signs to their babies “vocabulary” would make life easier. Shaking, nodding and pretending to understand baby talk may soon be a thing of the past as more parents teach their hearing infants basic words and phrases in American Sign Language (ASL).
“They’re able to tell you what they want,” says Pam Crawford, a Tucker parent who began teaching her son ASL when he was 6 months old. “He signed his first sign, fan, at about 9 months, and he does the dog sign a lot now.”
|Debbie Lesser, a sign language interpreter and founder of the Little Signers program, says, “There is so much research that confirms how positive it is. Signing helps reduce frustration because it gives them a natural kinesthetic tool to communicate their needs.”
Lesser explains that signing has made her life easier. If her children ask to get a balloon at the grocery store and they forget to say “please” and “thank you,” she is able to sign the reminder without yelling it across the store.
Infants and toddlers also feel more understood. Mealtime is easier because they can answer the question, “Do you want more?” A child can reply by signing the word more or finished, “as opposed to getting frustrated and throwing things off the highchair,” says Lesser.
Lesser emphasizes the importance of starting with four to six words such as: milk, more, eat, all done, please and thank you. As the child becomes comfortable and “fluent” with those few words, the parent can add a few more. The idea is to learn a little at a time, just like babies learn any language.
“The majority of signing children between the ages of 11 and 14 months begin using ‘sentences’ about 10 months earlier than is typical,” according to authors Michelle E. Anthony, M.A., Ph.D., and Reyna Lindert, Ph.D. in their book Signing Smart with Babies and Toddlers: A Parent’s Strategy and Activity Guide. “Children ages 6-18 months have an average of 25 signs and spoken words, compared to the developmental norm of three to five words. Signing children at 18 months have an average of 79 signs and 105 spoken words, compared to the developmental norm of 10-15 words.”
The biggest concern that parents have about teaching their baby ASL is that the child will sign instead of speak. According to Lesser and other researchers, the opposite is true. Signing seems to enhance a child’s ability to express ideas as he becomes more verbal. “Kids naturally drop the signing once they are able to communicate verbally, and it’s up to parents if they want to continue signing,” says Lesser.
Lesser began teaching ASL to her daughters when they were infants, and they both started signing at 10 months. “Kids don’t sign back simply to make conversation. They typically start signing when they feel they need to communicate something to you. Usually, their sign has something to do with eating.”
Gail McKay, founder of Creative Communications, has taught sign language to deaf children for over eight years. She explains that parents should say the word verbally as they use the sign so the child can pair up the concept. “There is a totally different approach to teaching a hearing baby as opposed to a deaf child who depends on the language to communicate,” says McKay. But she agrees that signing can be just as beneficial to hearing babies. “Deafness is a condition of isolation…the more people who use ASL the better.”
Schools and early learning centers have also picked up on this new approach to strengthening cognitive and linguistic skills. Leah Guthrie from the Bentwater Primrose School in Acworth says that ASL is a part of the curriculum. Primrose begins teaching babies ASL between 6 and 9 months and stops teaching when the child becomes verbal at 18 months. “We send home a kit for the parents with basic signs and pictures so they know what their baby is signing,” says Guthrie.
My baby will not learn to speak
False: Sign language promotes speech and in most cases advances children’s verbal abilities.
Teaching sign language is complicated
False: Parents are encouraged to teach a few simple words at a time and make signing a natural part of the daily routine.
My baby will be confused and overwhelmed
False: Using sign language helps to clarify concepts much earlier than speech alone.
I will feel embarrassed if people think my child is deaf
False: You will feel proud of your baby for being able to communicate more effectively.
Benefits of Sign Language:
○ Advances cognitive and linguistic development
○ Reduces frustration, whining and temper tantrums
○ Boosts emotional development and self-esteem
○ Enriches the parent-child relationship
○ Promotes acceptance and communication with the deaf community
*Only 30% of hearing parents with deaf children learn ASL
*Source: Gail McKay, Creative Communications
Signing Time (6 volumes)
My Baby Can Talk
Sign with Your Baby
Baby Signs: How to Talk to Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk
by Linda Acredolo, Ph.D. and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D.
Signing Smart with Babies and Toddlers:A Parent’s Strategy and Activity Guide
by Michelle E. Anthony, M.A., Ph.D. and Reyna Lindert, Ph.D.
Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy
by Marilyn Daniels, Ph.D.
Little Signers www.littlesigners.com
Sara Cuthright says she saw a difference in her son’s ability to communicate immediately after he started learning ASL at Primrose. “It would really cut down on the crying because he knew I understood him and would get what he wanted. If I wasn’t fast enough, he’d look at my face and sign ‘Mommy, more’ or ‘Mommy, eat.’ Sometimes he would touch my face lightly to make sure I was watching and then sign.”
As with any new language, learning to sign takes consistency and practice. Your baby will not learn how to “converse” overnight, but over time he will gradually build stronger vocabulary skills. Creating and recognizing signing opportunities on a daily basis is the key to a fun and successful experience for parents and children.
Reprinted with permission from Atlanta Parent Magazine - August Issue www.atlantaparent.com
Atlanta Parent Magazine's August Issue