Baby Sign Language

When the baby sign language phenomenon burst onto the scene, I could only think of one thing:

What took so long?

Actually, research on this fascinating topic has been going on since the 1980's. But for whatever reason, it seems that only recently has it exploded in popularity (Robert DeNiro's shenanigans with his signing grandson in Meet the Fockers probably had something to do with it).

Regardless, I'm here to share with you a very important message about baby sign language:

It works.

I don't work for any of the booming baby sign language businesses that are out there. Rather, I kind of have my own little family business: my wife and I are deaf, and naturally we sign with our three kids. Likewise, having personally witnessed numerous CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults) signing full phrases at ridiculously early ages--well before they were able to speak their first words--we've known all along that sign language gives babies a remarkable head start on language acquisition. So if you're looking into baby sign language for your child, congratulations! I can promise you that you've made an excellent decision.

Loquacious Lacey

My daughter Lacey is a regular chatterbox. Here's a partial list of her favorite quotes:

"There's the kitty cat." "I want milk." "I want a cookie." "More cookies." "Look, it's Elmo!" "I want a bath."

This is only the tip of the iceberg. She also has an extended vocabulary including words such as daddy, mommy, Darren, Brandon, grandmom, funny, water, baby, The Wiggles, finished, all gone, yes, no, bye-bye, ball, dog, eat, sleep, potty, and more. She also has the ability, with her repeated exposure to American Sign Language (ASL), to put these words together in multiple-word sentences.

All of this... at eleven months.

According to The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby--From Birth to Age Two (by William Sears, M.D. & Marsha Sears, R.N., 1993), here's what's considered normal language development for (non-signing)babies between 9 and 12 months of age:

  • Can make two-syllable sounds such as "ma-ma" and "da-da"
  • Associates sounds with the right person
  • Understands "no"
  • Can imitate sounds
  • Understands gestures (such as waving bye-bye)

Wow! Can you see the difference baby sign language makes?According to The Baby Book, eleven-month-old Lacey has language ability that's typical for a toddler between the ages of 18 to 24 months. Although of course I'm a proud papa, I'm not bragging; this isn't really extraordinary. It's the norm. There are so many other babies experiencing similar or even better results. The bottom line: baby sign language easily allows babies to build their vocabularies well before they're developmentally ready to speak.

Other Benefits

In my opinion, the ability to communicate with your baby as early as possible is the biggest benefit of them all. Come on, we're all human; as adorable as babies are, there are times when it can be tiring. Even the most devoted parents have wilted under the repetitious strain of "eat, poop, sleep... eat, poop, sleep." What better way to break the monotony than communicating--and connecting--with your baby way earlier than if you had waited for verbal skills to emerge? It's very rewarding and further enhances the bond between you and your baby. Baby sign language is truly a gift.

But wait, there's more.

Research indicates there are other benefits with long-lasting impact. Among them are:

Higher IQ. According to researchers Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, signing babies tend to develop higher IQs than babies who do not sign (scroll down to the links below to access their research findings).

A boost in vocabulary... and later, literacy. Look at it this way: when your pre-verbal baby is exposed to baby sign language, his brain is being "wired" for language. You are stimulating your baby's brain in areas that normally would not be stimulated until several months later. When the time comes for learning more language, be it spoken or written (or in ASL, should you choose to continue learning sign language), your child will pick up words much faster than if he hadn't had a head start with baby sign language. This proven fact, incidentally, busts the erroneous myth that baby sign language may cause delays in speech and language acquisition.

Clear communication... and reduced frustration. Have you ever been jolted out of your sleep by your baby's crying, only to stumble around looking for the source of his angst? It could be a yucky diaper, hunger, thirst, illness, a boo-boo, teething pain, or who knows what else. Wouldn't it be less frustrating (and scary!) for all of you if, through baby sign language, your baby could tell you exactly what was wrong? Could you imagine if, instead of having to lift your baby and sniff his rear end, he could simply sign "potty?" Baby sign language is a wonderful (and time-saving) tool for breaking down communication barriers.

Minimize the effects of "The Terrible Twos." I don't think it's possible to completely eliminate the terrible twos. But when lines of communication are open and your baby is able to effectively tell you what's bothering him, many a tantrum can be avoided.

Fun! This is probably the biggest benefit of them all. High IQs and all are nice, but Harvard can wait. The important thing is your connection with your baby. It's so much fun to be able to communicate via baby sign language.Your baby's eyes light up when he realizes hey, mommy understands me! There's an exciting sense of discovery when your baby picks up new words. It's also fun to watch the transition from gross motor skills to fine motor skills as your baby's signing improves (for example, a baby may initially sign "water" with one finger tapping the chin, and then later do the correct sign with a three-finger "W" handshape; this is the same thing as toddlers initially saying "I'm firsty!" and then later saying "I'm thirsty!" as their speech becomes more refined).

Confidence and self-esteem. "Wow, mommy and daddy are actually listening to what I say!"

Allows deaf babies to stay on course for age-appropriate language acquisition. Baby sign language is for everyone... including (and especially!) deaf babies. In fact, it's even more important for deaf babies because it helps them overcome a potentially devastating language delay. I feel so strongly about this topic that I'm creating a separate page for it. Here's the link: Baby Sign Language - For Deaf Babies

Recommended Resources

There are numerous resources out there if you're interested in learning more about baby sign language. As Deaf Culture Online expands, we will list several of them. For now, we're just going to list a couple of research findings that may be of interest to you.

However, before we close this topic, I have one last suggestion: when searching for an ideal baby sign language program, I highly recommend you choose one that's based on ASL. (One such example is the SIGN with your BABY® Complete Learning Kit DVD.) The reason I recommend it is because ASL is a real language with its own grammar.

No, you do not have to put in the 5-10 years it takes to become fluent in ASL--just 100 or so signs will be enough for your baby. Nonetheless, it's best if those signs come from an actual language. ASL has so much more to offer than any system of made-up baby signs.

First of all, if your baby sign language program incorporates ASL, you'll be on the same page as countless other parents and their babies. You'll be able to sign with them and they'll be able to sign with you. Second, this is a wonderful opportunity to expose your baby to another language and a culture. We all know that the younger you are, the easier it is for you to master more languages, musical instruments, and so on (there is indeed some truth to the old saying "You can't teach an old dog new tricks"). This is an exciting, stimulating way to engage your baby's mind. Would you rather do so with a made-up set of baby signs, or an actual language, ASL? If you wanted your child to learn Spanish, would you settle for a mix of broken English and a smattering of Spanish, or would you want him to say beautiful phrases entirely in Spanish? Same thing.

Although most hearing babies eventually jettison baby sign language once their verbal skills take off, there will always be some who, for whatever reason, feel attracted to ASL. Should they choose to continue learning this beautiful language even after they no longer need it, the opportunity for enriching experiences in the Deaf community will always be there for them. Also, as mentioned in the ASL page of Deaf Culture Online, ASL is now offered for foreign language credit in numerous high schools and colleges. So why not start now?

I hope you found this information on baby sign language to be helpful. It's a whole lot of fun, and it opens a whole new world for you and your baby. Enjoy!

Baby Sign Language Research (Acredolo & Goodwyn)

Official store of Signing Time! sign language TV series. Full line of sign language products for children including DVDs, Music CDs, flashcards, books, and more.

Sign Babies

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