Sign Language for Your Little One

I started taking baby sign language classes with my daughter Hannah because I thought it would be a fun and useful activity that would enable her to tell me when she was hungry or tired. It has become so much more for us. It has been a wonderful way for now 18-month-old Hannah to communicate to us what she is seeing and experiencing in her world and for us to show her that we understand her. She not only says when she is hungry, but whether she wants a cracker, apple, cheese, or milk. She tells us when it’s time for bed or bath. She points out things she sees in a book or in a picture like dogs, cats, fish, and birds, and she seems so pleased with herself when we acknowledge what she is telling us.

The other day she was sitting on the floor playing with a snoopy doll and a hair band I use to put her hair in pigtails. She looked up at me and made a sound that I thought meant “up.” So I went to lift her up and she got extremely frustrated. Then I noticed what she was doing with her hands, she was making the sign for “help.” I realized she was trying to get the hair band on Snoopy’s ear and she couldn’t quite do it so she wanted my help. I showed her how to hold it open and pull his ear through, which put a huge smile on her face. Because her “help” sounded so much like “up,” I would have just had an unhappy child on my hands if she hadn’t been able to sign to me what she wanted. In turn, I would have gotten frustrated with her for being upset about nothing and for complaining about my picking her up after I thought she asked me to. I am so grateful that sign language helps her communicate, and I only wish I, myself, could remember enough signs to teach her about everything she sees.  

See below for my interview with Bill Austin–White, veteran baby sign language teacher. Bill Austin-White, director of Touch Blue Sky’s baby sign language program, received his Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychobiology from University of California, Santa Cruz. He facilitates baby sign language programs throughout the Bay Area. Bill is passionate about the benefits of signing with children and is the proud father of two hearing sons who both sign. In addition to teaching sign language courses, Bill works as a commercial print model and hand model in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At what age should my child start learning sign? When should I expect him to do the signs?

Six to eight months of age is generally considered an optimal time to start signing with your baby, since before they’re six months old, babies have very little long-term memory to retain the signs they see.

Younger babies also lack the motor skills and hand-eye coordination required to make very precise gestures, so parents may miss their babies’ early signing attempts, perceiving them as random gestures. Once babies reach six months of age, however, memory retention increases rapidly. If you start signing to them when they’re between six and seven months of age, for example, you can reasonably expect them to sign back when they’re between eight and ten months old. Older babies and toddlers will generally catch on much more quickly because they’re reaching the stage in their development where they begin to imitate, and when they attempt to use gestures to communicate. They may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to sign back.

Having said this, there is no harm in starting to sign as early as you like. It’s worthwhile to note that deaf parents sign to their babies from birth, and their babies generally sign back significantly earlier than babies in hearing families do. If you’re considering starting to sign earlier, just remember that younger babies generally take longer to begin producing signs. In other words, if you start signing to your baby from birth, you might not see his first sign for six long months. This delay may cause you to become discouraged or even give up. If you do decide to start early, the upside is that you will have a much larger vocabulary when your baby’s language center is developmentally ready to process language and your baby could actually be signing back by six months.

My first son started learning signs at 10 months and by 15 months had mastered about 40 signs. We were signing with my second son at birth because we were still signing a lot with big brother. At the same benchmark of 15 months old, our second son was using, not 40 signs, but more than 60 signs! Maybe my second son had a higher proficiency because we started much earlier, maybe it was because Mommy and Daddy were more proficient signers, or maybe it’s because he saw us signing with each other and his big brother too. Signing was easy to learn and a really fun way to bond with our little ones.

In your classes, you teach more than just the few basic food signs that a lot of children know. Is it really necessary for my child to know how to sign Gorilla if they can already sign “milk” and “more”?

Even though the words (signs) Milk, All Done and More will be most important in the very early stages of a baby’s life, you will be surprised to discover how your 13 and 14 month old is aware of so many things.  Why hold out on your baby by not giving them the sign for Gorilla.  They might have a stuffed gorilla plush toy and when they sign gorilla they get you to say the word gorilla.  They get to hear what the word sounds like.

Signing empowers babies and gives them an increased feeling of control because they can communicate more successfully with those around them. Knowing that Mommy and Daddy not only hear them but also understand them provides children with a feeling that their parents value what they have to say. This can lead to an increase in self-esteem which greatly contributes to a child’s happiness.

Is it worth taking a class if the benefits are so short lived? My child should be able to speak by age two. Are there long-term benefits after they can speak?

Baby sign language gives parents the opportunity to communicate with children long before babies can verbalize their wants and needs. More than two decades of evidence based studies show that signing with babies accelerates language acquisition, reduces frustration and aggressive behavior, and as children mature, results in a greater interest in reading. Signing with your baby is a wonderful way to deepen the bond between you and your child and jump-starts his or her verbal skills. But are there benefits to signing with toddlers after they become verbal? The answer is, “yes!”

As your child matures and starts to verbalize she will go through a transitional period, speaking some words and signing others. Around 19 months of age, a child will often drop the sign as soon she can say the word. It’s so much easier to say “Mommy” than to sign it.

However, even at two or three years old, it’s not always easy for parents to understand what their child is saying. Using sign language bridges the gap and gives your child a way to communicate with you. Asking your child if she can use her hands to tell you what she wants can reduce her frustration and minimize temper tantrums, making the “terrible twos” not so terrible. Signing is also great to use at a noisy playground, reducing a parent’s need to shout. You can get your child’s attention by whistling or making eye contact and then signing what you need your child to know, whether it’s a five minute warning before heading home or a reminder to be careful.

Signing is a good thing for all age groups. Fingerspelling helps children as they learn to read. Elementary school teachers will tell you that children are visual learners and sign language helps to visually integrate new information. Parents and children can fingerspell the letters as the child sounds out the words. It’s like having closed captioning everywhere you go. Have you noticed how Sesame Street often has big colorful letters on the screen as they sound out each word? One parent said that they have a black board hanging at the end of their wrists at the park, at the store and at the coffee shop.

Sign language is also beneficial for kinesthetic learners – those who learn by doing. Signing allows children to channel their physical energy into communicating a thought. When practicing for their spelling quiz, children “feel the phonics” when they fingerspell each word.

When an individual signs, language is processed in the auditory, visual and kinesthetic brain centers and memories are stored in different parts of the brain. Therefore, when a child signs, he is utilizing different neural modalities, thus accessing more brain power, so to speak.

I was out on a stroller walk with my son, Liam when he was a toddler and had been speaking verbally for a few months. About five blocks from home, Liam said, “Mush mush!”  I increased the pace thinking that his son wanted him to go faster like a dog sled (watching The Discovery Channel was a family activity). Increasingly frustrated, Liam said, “Mush mush!” again and again. I stopped the stroller and requested Liam to say it slower. Liam replied, “Muuuushhhh.” I then asked, “Can you tell me with your hands?”  Liam signed “gorilla” and Bill instantly understood what Liam wanted – Gorilla Munch cereal, which was located in a container in the bottom of the stroller. Signing averted a potential melt down. Liam (and Daddy) were happy all the way home.

All that said signing is just plain fun. At times, it gives our family our own little “secret language.” Be careful what you sign though. American Sign Language is one of the most popular languages in the nation!

I have heard sign language will make my child speak later than he would have otherwise. Is this true?

You may encounter parents who are concerned that teaching their baby sign language will delay their baby’s speech acquisition. Research proves that the opposite is actually true. Studies show that sign language utilizes more diversified areas of the brain for communication, thus babies actually develop language skills earlier than their peers, and have a comparatively larger verbal vocabulary. Signing empowers babies and young children because they can communicate more successfully with those around them.

What else would you like people to know about sign language for babies?

Baby Sign Language gives parents the opportunity to communicate with babies long before they can verbalize their wants and needs. Signing with babies has been proven to help accelerate language development, reduce frustration, enhance a child’s self esteem and deepen the bond between parent and child.

Stop guessing what your baby is trying to tell you and start spending more time fulfilling your child’s specific desires and needs. Start building your baby sign language skills today while meeting like-minded parents in your area. Join a baby sign language workshop as a fun opportunity to build your signing vocabulary with themes like mealtime, animals, colors, family, safety, and more.

Watch a video of Bill and some of his students here.

Two different playgroup series are now offered at Sprout in San Francisco. One is called Playgroup Zoom and the other is called Playgroup Boom. No need to take them in order; you can start with either Zoom or Boom. To maximize the benefits of this program, it is recommended that participants enroll in the Introductory Workshop.  

Find Sign Language and other great classes and events at your local Sprout!