Baby Sign Language

Learning to communicate before they can speak

Though it might seem pretty obvious, some may not be aware that babies and toddlers develop dexterity in their hands before they do in their tongues. Because of this, they can pick up on sign language even before they can speak!

Dr. Joseph Garcia, the founder of the “Sign With Your Baby” system, did years of research into teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to babies. ABC did an interesting story on it.

When I was young, my mother did some ASL interpreting for our church and we picked up on a fair amount as children. I went on to study ASL in college, and have half my degree in ASL and Deaf Studies. The other half is in English. I will let you speculate as to which one I was better at. Thanks to my background in ASL, many of the more simple signs stuck with me, and it was very natural to teach it to my son as an infant.

We started teaching (teaching is a strong word, it was really just showing) Cillian sign language when he was just a few months old, and we started with milk. When it was time to nurse, his dad and I would both sign milk while asking him if he was “Ready for the milkies”. I always made sure to use the corresponding word with each sign, as I was trying to teach him both to speak and to sign. While he nursed, I would sign milk to him repeatedly. He picked up on that particular sign fairly quickly. He would smile and and get excited when he saw the sign even before he could sign it himself, and, once he did learn it, signing was definitely preferable to him pulling on my shirt or just leaning in with an open mouth. Yes, that happened a time or two.

When he began eating solid foods, I added a few more signs that would help him communicate his needs. We started with eat, more, all done, water, and of course, please and thank you. Anytime I used a word, I would also use the sign. When I asked if he would like some water, I signed water the entire time, and continued to sign it while saying, “Is that your water? Do you like water?” in my annoying high-pitched mom-voice. I could almost hear C saying, “Don’t patronize me, woman!”

Children absorb way more than we realize, and it did not take much time at all for C to start signing back. The first time he signed something other than milk, I was handing him strawberries while signing and saying eat and after each, I asked him if he would like more, of course, while signing more. Something distracted me, and when I looked back at C, he was signing more just as determinedly as his tiny hands could manage. I might have celebrated.

We tried never to add too many at once, but when it felt natural, I would show Cillian a new sign. By eighteen months C was singing about twenty words including, hat, apple, cat, help, shoes, again, bath, light, and toothbrush. Some children have learned closer to a hundred words by that age! Children really are amazing little creatures. It usually only takes showing C a sign once for him to attempt to imitate it and by the next day, he is using it independently.

You can certainly teach your child ASL just like you can teach them any other language, but even if you do not intend for him to be fluent in ASL, learning a few signs can alleviate a lot of frustrations as it gives him a way to communicate his needs more clearly.

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The most important of signs – I love you

You can certainly teach your child ASL just like you can teach them any other language, but even if you do not intend for him to be fluent in ASL, learning a few signs can alleviate a lot of frustrations as it gives him a way to communicate his needs more clearly.

I have put together a list of the words we found to be the most helpful, and a short video demonstrating how to sign them.

Feel free to share the video or comment with other signs that helped your not-yet-verbal little one communicate!

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