Thursday, January 20, 2011


It seems to me that “baby sign language” (as it is often called) has been popping up everywhere I go. Being a Deaf, ASL teacher, I get asked a lot of questions about this topic. One of the most frequently asked is whether baby sign language actually works. My short answer is: Yes, it definitely works if you do it correctly. My long version would more like the following…

Just like American Sign Language, the first thing you need to take into consideration is that not all baby sign language classes are created equally. Who’s teaching it? Are they fluent in ASL? Do they use it on a daily basis? The teacher needs to have some experience on the topic. Unlike learning true ASL, it isn’t imperative that the teacher is a native signer, but they must have rudimentary ideas of what you need to equip yourself for this experience.

Another very important question, and arguably the most important question of all, is whether the class is teaching ASL signs or not. There are several classes out there that do not use actual ASL signs. They have their own system of signs, use “home signs,” or just flap their hands around and hope something impressive comes out of them. It is vital that your class teach ASL signs. Now, don’t worry about the word order if all you’re wanting is to communicate in sign with your hearing baby. Grammatical structure of ASL isn’t necessary in this situation, but all situations are different.

Of course, I do have an opinion on this matter (who, me???). I personally feel the use of ASL conceptualization is the way to go as opposed to Signing English.  I’m not talking word order here. You should be able to sign and speak at the same time, but you can’t do that if you’re using ASL. (This is only in regard to a hearing parent wanting to sign a few words with their hearing kids.) Anyway, there are several books and DVDs out there to show you how to work with your children, but some of them do not use ASL.

As a teacher, when I teach Sign With Your Baby or Toddler classes, I am certified through Northlight Communications. Sounds fancy, eh? All that means is that I use the Sign With Your Baby method of teaching. And all that means is I teach ASL signs and conceptualization. It’s what’s right. You must do what’s right in this world…OK, I got off on a tangent.

Introducing sign language to your baby can be a lot of fun, but so many people take it so darn seriously that it loses the very essence that makes it something useful. People become frustrated that they think their baby’s not picking it up fast enough or that all their hard work is for nothing. Don’t despair! It’s not all in vain. You must remember that baby’s will generally start signing around the 7th month. Seven. Not two weeks, not two months, but seven months.

Also, if a parent is teaching their child a sign and the child starts moving his hands in an odd way whenever the subject comes up, this doesn’t mean he’s signing it wrong. They’re babies. They’re not going to sign fluently and clearly at first. Just hang on, have some persistence and know that, eventually, if you continue to sign it correctly, he will pick it up. Just be patient!

Another thing I’ve found in teaching is that most parents are so eager to start using the sign language that they want to know all of the signs now. No, not now…yesterday. They want to immediately be able to pick it up and be fluent. Come on, guys, this is just totally illogical. You don’t pick up German quickly and easily (unless you live with Helga the former barbarian), and you won’t pick up ASL that way either.

So pick out three words (MILK, MORE, EAT), and begin to sign these three words any time it is appropriate. Sign and say it clearly and try to keep it near your face. You can use these three in many situations: the baby’s hungry and wants to EAT; The baby’s drinking milk or breast feeding; The baby’s finished his food and wants MORE, etc. Just use those three. After you’re comfortable, you can start using three more. Just don’t try to cram too many signs down your baby’s mouth.

Again, I say this to all hearing parents of hearing babies. If you have a deaf child, you will want to use ASL – not baby sign language.

If you start signing as soon as your child is born, there will be no problems getting them to copy you. Just be patient and do not, under any circumstance, get frustrated with them. Another good tip is to make sure that the baby knows what you’re signing about. If you’re looking across a field at the sunset and there’s a cow grazing, you sign SUNSET and the baby sees the cow and thinks that’s what you’re signing. You have to make sure you’re clear as to what you are expressing.

Another great way to teach sign to your baby would be through music. If you go to the Sign2Me/Northlight Communications site, they sell a CD called “Pick Me Up” that has the signs and the songs together. No, this isn’t a commercial. I personally think it’s a little expensive, but it’s one of the best ones out there.

Know your baby or toddler. Know their personality. Know how they learn. Experiment. Play. And just, generally, have fun. This is supposed to be a fun experience for everyone. And, believe me, the day your baby signs MORE to you after finishing his mashed carrots will be one of the most memorable ones in your life!


  1. I am a huge proponent of signing with babies. My son didn't speak verbally until he was 23 months old...but we were signing "conversations" by the time he was 10 months. At the time, my goal was to teach him ASL as a second language. But that required me to learn it, and I quickly fell behind once we got past the basic vocab words :-( (I wish we had been close enough to GR to take your classes, Michele!) Still, I can emphatically say that signing eliminated much of the communication-related frustration experienced with many toddlers, and it also substantially boosted his comprehension. When he did start speaking verbally, it was in full sentences.

    Thanks for the post, Michele, and I hope other parents will be willing to try signing with their babies!

  2. That's wonderful, Kristi! I'm so glad you had a good experience. After your son started speaking, did he continue to sign or did that die off?

  3. He would have continued signing if I could have kept up with it. My goal was and still is to become proficient in ASL and then teach him, but it's been difficult for me to find classes I can fit into my schedule (not to mention budget). He still enjoys learning and using new signs, though!

  4. Michele you are so right! In my class I often get folks who have learned a little "Baby Sign" first. A lot of what they learned looks silly to me. It is only useful to label.

    After 6 weeks of my class they can follow a simple personnel story I tell.. voice off. If you don't learn grammar you can't follow a story. I think you are spot on in your approach to teaching kids and parents.

  5. @haddy2dogs, Isn't it odd that a program would simply make up signs for their customers? Why would you want to teach your child gibberish. I mean, you wouldn't put a bunch of sounds into your kids' mouths and tell them to make up words. Too weird!

  6. That was a good post...I think parents should have fun with it, but approach it properly. Your always right on!!

  7. Thank you, Kymberley! You're right...approach it properly. :v)

  8. I kept teaching him one sign in particular. EAT and until he turned 2 he would sign it and say it at the same time. When he couldn't speak yet it was a life saver to know that he wanted to eat rather than him get frustrated and cry while I tried to figure out exactly what he needed at that moment. He was/is usually a voracious eater. I meant to have him use many signs but that was the only one he adopted of the few I was working with.