Signs of Intelligence

Published 19 years, 5 months past

This morning, Carolyn told me quite clearly that she wanted some yogurt for breakfast.  Technically, what she said was “more baby”, but I knew what she meant.

How did a 13-month-old manage to tell me what she wanted?  By using sign language.  Kat and I have been teaching her Baby Signs, which is a simplified version of American Sign Language.  I’m given to understand that Baby Signs figure in the plot of the recent movie Meet The Fockers, but don’t let that sour you on the idea.  The amazing thing is that it really does work, if you’re willing to put in time and effort.

At this point, we’re actually looking more to real ASL signs than we are to the Baby Signs vocabulary when teaching Carolyn new signs.  I think the real utility of Baby Signs is that it gets you started where it makes the most sense: teach your baby signs like “food”, “water”, “more”, and “all done”.  This allows the child to communicate their wants and needs long before they ever become verbal.  It works because motor skills advance more quickly than verbal skills do.  I’ll be very interested to see if Carolyn retains the signing as she grows up, or if she’s able to pick up secondary languages more easily.

Carolyn’s first sign was “hat”, which of course didn’t help at all with deducing her needs, but it was still incredible to witness.  I was actually there when she figured it out.  She was looking through a Baby Signs board book while I stood watching.  She stared very intently at a picture of a baby signing “hat”, and then put her hand to the side of her head, just like in the picture.  My jaw dropped, but I managed to keep quiet.  She did it a couple more times, then looked up at me.  That’s when I showered the praise.  It only took a day or two to teach her that the actual sign for “hat” is to pat the hand on the head, not just place it there, like she saw in the picture.  Now Carolyn signs “hat” whenever she sees a picture of one of her grandfathers, because they both wear hats all the time.

Her signing vocabulary is now about thirty words, and she’s actually devised two signs of her own—which means, unfortunately, that we have no idea what she’s trying to say when she makes them!  But we’ll figure it out eventually.

As for how “more baby” means “I want yogurt”, that’s because we quickly noticed that when Carolyn signs “more” what she really means is “I want”.  As for “baby”, the yogurt we feed her has a picture of a baby on each container.  One day she walked over to the refrigerator, patted the door, and signed “baby”.  Then she had to do it a few more times while the rest of us scratched our heads and said things like, “The refrigerator’s not a baby, sweetie.  What are you trying to say?” before finally figuring it out.

Sometimes I think she’s smarter than we are.

So if you’re a new parent or a parent-to-be, I strongly recommend that you try this with your own baby.  When a baby starts waving bye-bye, that’s when they’re ready to start learning sign language.  (We started earlier than that, hoping to lay a foundation, and may or may not have been wasting our time.)  It will help reduce frustration, and therefore tantrums, because you’ll be better able to meet their needs when they have them.  The system isn’t perfect, of course: any baby that gets too upset will be unable to communicate with anything besides tears.  It’s still a great thing when your toddler comes into the room and signs “food” long before the hunger starts making her cranky.

I wonder if the children of deaf parents, whether they themselves are deaf or not, have long benefitted (tempramentally and intellectually) from signing, and nobody outside the deaf culture bothered to notice.

Comments (78)

  1. Pingback ::

    January 17, 2005 7:51pm @ trainedmonkey

    […] nkey skip to sidebar skip to search box eric meyer wrote up his experience with teaching his daughter (now thirteen months old) sign-language […]

  2. Pingback ::

    vitor » Baby Sign Language

    […] I admit that it has nothing to do with my usual subjects but this article from Eric Meyer “Signs of Intelligence” deserves your attention if, sooner or later, you’re go […]

  3. Pingback ::

    cheap therapy. » Baby Sign Language?

    […] he Fockers, the baby could use sign langauge… I thought it was a joke… not so. Check it out.

    Comments » The […]

  4. Eric,

    a lovely story.

    In Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks (of Awakenings fame, but writer of many fascinating books on the subject of the mind and the senses) covers this in some detail.
    Chidren can generally sign long before they can speak. It’s not the development of the mental ability that holds us back from speaking younger, rather the inability to control the muscles needed to vocalize.

    Inspiring stuff, and it’s something I’ll definitely keep in mind.


  5. We have two good friends that have taught their children signing. It’s the coolest thing to watch. These kids really get across what they need. If I had heard of this when mine were small, I definitely would have done it — it makes perfect sense. However, with my oldest at 15 and 6’2″, he not only says what he needs to, but half the time I’m not nearly cool enough to catch the humor in it. I need to get out more. ;)

  6. Trackback ::

    Morganically Grown

    Baby Signs
    Eric Meyer has a lovely story about his 13-month-old daughter Carolyn’s progress learning Baby Signs. It’s absolutely fascinating to think that one can communicate via sign language with a child who hasn’t yet learned to speak. Naturally, I immediat…

  7. Amazing! I had never heard about the idea of Baby Signs before today. I’ve often wondered how much communication goes unnoticed before a child is able to formulate their first words, so sign language seems almost obvious in hindsight.

    I was in a sushi restaurant a few weeks ago and watched as a baby that couldn’t have been much into his double digits (months, not years) folded his fingers into a classic index-finger pointing gesture and pointed out various things catching his eye. It was no accident, since he kept coming back to the same gesture. I wondered at the time if the behaviour was something he had observed from his parents, or if it’s a more fundamental human understanding that pointing equals directing attention.

  8. I had recently researched and decided to do this myself (the need has since been delayed).

    It makes so much sense, and leads to happier babies and parents when needs can be communicated. Less frustration for everyone!

  9. Trackback ::

    Baby Signs

    Eric Meyer wrote today about how he and his taught their daught

  10. Although you didn’t specifically link to it, there is a Baby Signs book. My wife picked it up way before we brought our son home. Now that he’s almost a year, he’s definitely ready for it. He knows yes and no but we get into a guessing game until we find what he wants. Luckily, we’ve been able to get it before frustration sets in.

  11. That’s great, Eric!

    This seems to be very popular in Italy as well. The first time we went to visit my brother there we were amazed to see tiny, tiny little children ‘saying’ “I want more”, “All gone?”, “I like it”, and a few other things I can’t recall right now.

    Apparently it helps them through the “Terrible 2s” by easing their frustration at being unable to communicate.

    I’m certainly going to use it if I ever have children, I think it’s wonderful.

  12. My parents have done that with my two-year-old twin sisters and they learned REALLY fast. They could tell us what they wanted WAY before they could talk. Its cool to see others doing it as well.

  13. We used this to great effect, I wish more parents knew about it. Of course the great thing about the whole family knowing sign language is that as a parent, when Carolyn gets older, you’ll be able to sign to her across the table, “Eat your peas or you’re going to your room.” without saying it outloud while in public :)

  14. We talked about trying to do baby signs with our twins, but we never really go into it. I find that babies are quite good at non-verbally communicating anyway, signs or no signs.

    Now that they are older (going on 19 months) and starting to talk a lot, it is quite fun communicating with them. I can imagine being able to do that at a younger age through signs would’ve been both fascinating and useful.

  15. My wife and I found this last year when our son was about five months. It didn’t work then (no _hit) and we need to try again now that he’s fourteen months. Thanks for reminding me :)


  16. I’ve always been curious to hear from a parent who had actually tried baby signs. I’m glad to hear that you’re having success with it.

    I also highly recommend Oliver Sack’s Seeing Voices which is an amazing book and may answer your question about the children of deaf parents. One of the things I found intriguing in Seeing Voices is that deaf children who use sign language have better visuo-spatial abilities. I wonder if the same is true of babies using sign.

  17. You should check out for your next child. I used it with my now 2 year and 4 months old son, Liam. At 13 months he could say “more yogurt” and much more. At his current age, we take it for granted that he undertands us and we can ask him questions like what he wants for lunch. We are still amazed when he starts singing along to his favorite songs in the car. These songs are mostly Fisher Price’s Little People songs. He loved these videos when he was younger and we have many of the CDs in the car as when he is tired they help put him to sleep and when he isn’t tired he sings along with them. Children’s verbal ability starts very early on, you just have to change the way you listen to hear it. And you have to hear it and respond to it, otherwise they will virtually stop trying as they are effectively being ignored.

  18. Just idle thought, and not something that I think necessarily has any merit: could teaching your kids a shortcut like sign language cause them to speak later than they might otherwise?

    If they already have an adequate vocabulary to express their needs and wants, doesn’t that take “evolutionary” pressure (not the right phrase, but it’ll do) away from them? They don’t have to learn to speak, so they might not.

    As I said, idle thought.

  19. That’s truly awesome! I’ve never heard of this until now, and think it’s perfectly logical. When I have kids (that’ll be a while), I might try this, if I remember it in ten years.

  20. Eric: My daughter is about 21 months now, and she’s been signing for almost a year. I highly recommend the Signing Time series of videos. Kids LOVE them and they’re even interesting for adults (well, “interesting” for the first dozen or so viewings, then “tolerable”).

    Despite the fact that she’s not quite two years old, she’s already learned the entire alphabet, mostly by watching volume 5 of the Signing Time series (“ABC Signs”). This stuff really is amazing.

  21. That is great news that Baby Signs is working for you. ‘More milk’, ‘banana’, and ‘help’ are signed all the time by my 15 month old. The reduction in frustration absolutely makes it worth the effort for any parents thinking about it.

    As for children talking later, all the research ponts to children who learn Baby Signs talking earlier. Children want to communicate and will drop the signs as soon as they learn the words.

  22. My guess is she’ll retain her ability to sign well into adulthood as long as the pair of you encourage her. Our eleven year old still signs, which drives me to distraction… because I-can’t-sign.

  23. We did this as well with our son and he too ended up using the “more” sign for “I want” but it definitely was a help because he was able to express a few things that he couldn’t otherwise. Unrelated to our attempts of sign language, he was a late talker (probably since I was also) and we wish that we really had done more sign language because there was a phase where a greater sign language vocabulary would have helped ease some of the frustration we had.

  24. I was one of the unfortunate people who suffered through ‘Meet the Fockers’, and yes, the signing is in there. If one watches part-way through the credits, it’s also used to make a stupid joke. I’m glad to see this being put to intelligent use, however, and wish you all the best luck with it.

  25. Trackback ::

    The Red Baron Blog

    Babies, Charlie Brown, and Sign Language
    …I’m going to share this story with “THE BOSS” of the family, and perhaps move forward with signing for babies….
    On a Peanuts note, I think you’ll enjoy this inspired work of art: This is the “Charlie Brown Understands American Sign Languag…

  26. Hmmm.

    Just spoke with my wife (Dr. in neonatology) and she confirmed my initial thoughts. The act of speaking is pretty hard for babies: by learning them the alternative easier way to communicate you’re in risk of your baby to start speaking later, because your baby will be too lazy to speak – why does she have to speak at all if you understand her already?

    And – there’s a philosophy notion that spoken language is a basement of mind and intellect. I’m not sure about this notion (since it have it’s hard part with deaf people), but it has it’s merits too. With that notion the later your baby will start speaking, the later life start she will have.

    Even throwing the above into the window, speaking by itself is an excellent excercise for toddler’s mind. By using the sign language, you seems like simplifying your own life (aka “now I can understand my baby easier”) while potentially making her future life harder.

    Anyway, it’s your baby and I’m indeed sure you made all the precautions while starting with your sign language endevour (like, spoke to pediatrist). The last thing I really want is to criticize your private life and your own decisions: instead, I just wanted to make sure you’re aware of alternative positions and ideas, since your blog post and the related comments thread already became the Pro-sign-language manifest that might misdirect the readers and potential followers.

    Oh. I’m visiting your web site almost daily for the web development tidbits and always wanted to thank you for your efforts. It’s a pity I haven’t found the excuse to do that until today. Great job and – looking forward to read from you again tomorrow :)

    p.s. Hope you’ll excume me my poor English, I’m not a native speaker, especially with medical and philosophy terms

  27. Trackback ::

    Le petit monde de Timtom

    Baby Signs
    Blogger Eric Meyer writes a touching article on his 13 months-old daughter’s communicating skills. Her parents are teaching her the Baby Signs language, a variation of the signs language used by the Hearing Impaired.

    I wasn’t aware of such effort…

  28. Alexei, as others have mentioned before, research clearly shows that baby sign language is beneficial. I guess babies just don’t know these theories you’re talking about :-).

  29. We used the Baby Signs book to teach our son some signs from about 6 months on (He’s currently 19 mos). It has been quite a success. The funniest moment was after he had a stomach bug, and had just gotten done throwing up at 4 am. He started signing for Kitty Cat, we think because one of our cats is always hacking up furballs all over the house.

  30. Another nod in the direction of “If anything, baby signs help babies speak earlier, not later”. That’s definitely what happened with our daughter – she ate up the baby signs, developing an impressive vocabulary with them, including several she made up herself. Since this meant she already understood the concept of communication, it was perfectly natural to migrate over to the spoken language she heard around her all the time, particularly those words that she associated with each of her signs.

    As she started to speak, she often used both in conjunction, such as signing “more” while saying what she wanted, or asking for something while signing “please”.

    She’s now 4 and doesn’t use them for herself any more, but does use them with our 19-month-old. He’s already begun abandoning some signs in favor of the spoken words as well.

  31. My high school offered ASL as a foregin language. It was pretty cool because we had people from the Ohio School for the Deaf helping us understand the culture and everything. One part that this story reminded me of was my teacher telling me that babies of deaf parents would start “babbling” in sign before they started “babbling” out loud.

  32. Alexei,
    Even if you teach your baby sign language, they will still try to mimic you verbally. And, of course, that is the first step in speaking.

    Even if your baby started talking later, that doesn’t mean they are being harmed. Didn’t Albert Einstein not speak for his first few years? He turned out alright.

  33. Wheeee, Baby Hacks! :-)

  34. After reading Alexei’s post, I can appreciate the theory he brings to light. And perhaps that is applicable in certain instances or children. But from the one proven example I have access to daily, I can claim evidence of the opposite.

    Our youngest daughter signs, and has been watching me show her signs since about six months of age. She’s fifteen months now, and attempts to pronounce almost every word she hears, with an everyday, solid vocabulary of 12-15 words understandable by someone other than her parents.

    Her older sister didn’t sign and didn’t establish a verbal vocabulary past 2-3 words until she was almost twenty-four months. Some might claim that is because she was the first child and didn’t have another child to interact with daily and from which to learn. I would disagree, since she had our constant attention, or our in-home care provider’s constant attention, and a pseudo older brother through our care provider’s son.

    So my personal theory is that signing helped our younger to be interested in communication modes by stimulating a connection between sign/communication and reward (either getting what she wanted or receiving praise.) And this happened when she wasn’t getting half the attention that our oldest got at her sibiling’s age, due to our daily work and preschool agendas for her sister (not to mention potty-training of her older sister.)

    My two (practical) cents.

  35. Im just curious on a couple of things. First, a few people mention “research clearly showing” that sign helps children speak faster – yet nobody pointed us to any of this research. Where did you see the research people – as a father of two young girls I am curious.

    Secondly, my personal opinion is that it doesn’t matter if the child signs or not in how fast they begin talking. As I stated previously I have two daughters. The first began speaking very early (and now, at 2.75 years old never ceases). She has been told by many, many, people that speaking with her is much like speaking with an adult (just goes to show you how poorly most adults communicate I guess).

    Our second child is now 14 months old and doesn’t speak at all beyond Da Da and That! Amazingly enough, those two words suit her needs quite well. However, their personalities are both vastly different. Our first daughter has always been a very energetic outgoing person. who has always been quick to verbalize her enthusiasm or displeasure at something. Our second is a more “introspective” baby who observes and considers everything long before she makes any noises concerning it.

    I imagine personality and individual differences goes alot further toward determining how quickly a child talks than learning to sign.

    However, with that said, and as a huge fan of languages in general, I think it is very, very cool that you have been teaching your daughter to Sign Eric. Hopefully you will extend that learning to multiple spoken languages as well. Living in an around Cleveland I’m sure knowing more than English will come in handy for her (Hebrew and Russian both come to mind when I think of Cleveland’s population).

  36. Trackback ::


    Baby Sign Language
    Ok, I admit that it has nothing to do with my usual subjects but this article from Eric Meyer “Signs of Intelligence” deserves your attention if, sooner or later, you’re going to be a father/mother.
    I stumbled in the article via Photomatt but heard…

  37. While in the process of raising two girls (12 and 15), I’ve discovered that time spent interacting with your children is never “wasted time”. And watching an adult trying to get a baby to wave “bye-bye” is almost as much fun as being that adult. And the feeling you get when your child DOES wave back is fantastic!

  38. Considering your background, Eric, have you considered teaching Carolyn Baby CSS? I’m really curious to find out what hand gesture best represents “font-family: sans-serif.” :)

  39. We introduced our little guy (now four) to the Baby Signs sign language and it is truly amazing how quickly they can communicate with you. It’s an interesting concept that they can understand the communication concepts, but just can’t vocalize them.

    We had a few comments about “a deaf baby” when people saw him using it. (They couldn’t understand why he was signing, and we were responding vocally.) We also never engaged in “baby talk” with our son.

    Will it help in learning secondary languages? We’ll find out, I guess. What we have noticed, however, is that his vocabulary and thought patterns are advanced for his age. (This is backed up by our pediatrician, so it’s not just proud-parent-syndrome :)

  40. Trackback ::

    Latin Dances

    Baby Sign Language
    I came across (via PhotoMatt) a post by Eric Meyers about teaching his young daughter Baby Signs. When I read the comments (a while ago), there was a mini-debate occurring regarding whether teaching your child how to sign would lead to he or she learni…

  41. Regarding the research, Baby Minds and Baby Signs by Acredolo and Goodwyn are good starting points. Obviously, they are pro-signing and only talk about studies which suggest signing works well.

    Our experience was that we did not try to teach any particular signs to Hannah, who is now 18 months, but she quickly latched onto any gesture which could be interpreted as a sign. Hannah has invented signs for “wash”, “eczma cream”, “asthma inhaler” and so on.

    Whenever Hannah does a sign, we respond by repeating the sign and saying the word aloud. We also use the Baby Minds technique of “scaffolding conversations,” that is speaking to Hannah, then pausing for her to reply, then speaking again. A lot of the time there is no reply, but the space is there, which encourages Hannah to think about filling the space. You can do that from birth. Hannah is increasingly using both word and sign simultaneously.

    Compared with the children in her playgroup, Hannah speaks more than some and less than others, but she can does seem to communicate a far broader range of things than those children who rely solely on verbal communication. For example, between signs, noises and increasingly words, Hannah can tell us about more than 20 animals. She is also combining words and signs to commuicate more complex ideas (eg. she signs “rabbit” and shouts “jump”)

    So in a totally non-scientific way, I think it will depend on the child. The desire to sign may be inherent anyway, so you may as well encourage it. So long as your child is happy and healthy and developing communication skills which include words, then suplementing that with signs seems like a good idea to me.

  42. As a disclaimer…my wife is a graduate student studying to be a Speech and Language Pathologist, and is a presenter for the Sign2Me network (which advocates ASL). The Sign2Me site has a good listing of supporting research, which provides the basis of everything I will say about signing with children. Oh, and we currnetly have no children of our own.

    When I met my wife, she had worked as a sign language intrepreter in the schools. I had all the same concearns about the usefullness of sign language with pre-verbal children, and about speech delays. Over time, I have found that the fears of sign language delaying any spoken language development are unfounded. In fact, the exact opposite is true – using sign language helps children to develop verbal communication at a much faster rate, once the fine motor skills develop to allow “speech.”

    In producing “speech,” the most difficult part is the fine motor skills required for breath control, and the shape of the oral cavity (think mouth…but a little more goes into it that just the mouth). The brain development of abstract thinking, processing sounds, forming chains of ideas (i.e. sentences), etc., all happens months before a child is capable of speaking. Infants are trapped in their bodies, wanting to communicate, but being unable to actually to speak.

    Using sign language, the child is able to effectively communicate, without needing to wait for the breath and mouth control to catch up with their brain development. For most signing children, their speech is significantly advanced by using sign language – because they have been able to “exercise” all of the paths in the brain required for abstract thinking, and the formation of language. Children to sign speak sooner, and in more complex utterances than children who do not sign. ALL of the clinical evidence is that teaching children sign language advances their speech development. For children who begin signing between 8 and 12 months, their spoken vocabulary by age 2 can be double that of non-signing children.

    I would recommend that people shy away from “baby signs” or “home signs” and stick with ASL. ASL is an actual language – it has the legs to grow with the child beyond the pre-school years – baby signs do not. ASL is taught as a foreign language in many schools. For a variety of reasons, I would avoid “Signed English” – it is used in many classrooms, but lacks the conceptual basis of ASL – and again, it is not the language of the “deaf community” and is not as useful as a foriegn language.

  43. My home is full of children as my wife has been a nanny/care provider for over 40 children in the 3 month – 36 month range over two decades. One child who is able to sign, almost refuses to speak and is about 24 months. Here is the interesting part, every child is unique and some who can talk, lack other skills. So, what would I do today if any of our own four children were still that age? Read books to them. Yes I want us all to learn ASL before we are all grown up, and the children want to learn it too.

  44. Trackback ::

    Outside the Box

    Baby “Talk”
    Wow. I’d heard of this before, but wasn’t really paying attention at the time…

  45. What a great post! We too have done this with our second son, and it’s worked wonders. He’s now 18 months, and has been signing a few things for half his life. This hasn’t stopped him from speaking; part of the deal is for us to speak the words as well as sign them. So he’s been hearing words all along.
    In addition, some of the negative posts remind me of comments I’ve heard from people, as we have made portuguese the first language in our household. Several people wondered about the ability of our children to pick up English.
    Our 1st child who’s now 3.5, didn’t get much of the baby signs, as we weren’t as well aware of it when he was an infant, but now that he’s in preschool, not only will he not stop speaking, but he’s fluent in both Portuguese and English, and he can translate for people who speak only one or the other.
    Keep it up Eric, and enjoy the fruits of communication!

  46. Trackback ::

    The Klein's

    Baby signing
    Eric Myer has a great story over on his blog about baby sign language. Maybe this is something Rachel and I should consider?

  47. Eric, ASL “more” will be your best friend for the next several months, and yes, she’s using it to say “I want.” My wife and I used Baby Signs with our two children (both of whom talked at the expected age BTW.) The four or five signs, I think, lessened tantrums in the circa-two-years-old time frame. At one point, I remember, we were trying to shoo a wasp out of the van, closed the door and we were about to leave when our son started frantically signing “more”. “More what?” we asked. He pointed to the window. The wasp had flown back in and only he saw it. At the park you can ask her “more swing?” and she’ll sign “more” if she wants to swing some more. “All done?” and she’ll sign “all done” when she wants down. Actually, she’ll sign “more” when you ask “All done?” :) Baby Signs was a blessing to us.

  48. I am an Independent Certified Instructor for Baby Signs(R) and would just like to comment on a few things that were said here. First, using baby sign language does not delay speech in any form. Acutally, it has been proven during a grant funded study for 20 years that using sign language for babies has helped babies to speak earlier. Also, the IQ is shown to be on average 12 points higher than those who have not learned to sign. It is amazing on how many babies and toddlers I have seen learn to sign and also speak so well after taking these classes. Those that spoke their doubts do have a right to freedom of speech, but I would just like to say that unless you have seen first hand how this program has NOT worked, then you should study more about it before commenting to others just by what you may have “heard”. Doctors are people and DO make mistakes….don’t rely on one source alone. This program was a lifesaver for me and now I am able to share the knowledge of the Baby Signs(R) program with others.

  49. I read most comments when first replying and just read more and would like to comment again.

    For the father who would like to see the research, go to and you will find it there. We don’t hide anything.

    For the one who wrote about Sign2me I would just like to say that I find it really shameful to see someone put down other companies and ways when all we are trying to do is help bridge the gap of communication between a baby or toddler with an adult. At Baby Signs(R) we pride ourselves by the work we do and don’t need to tell others not to try this company or that one. As a lot of people have said in here… is the fact that you and your child understand one another. Please tell me that a baby at 8 months old can snap their fingers when doing the sign for “dog”. Their motor skills are not caught up yet. Heck, a two year old still can not snap. Therefore you are expecting way too much out of a young baby/toddler if you are pushing ONLY ASL on them and that is really a shame because there will be many times when frustration comes along by them not being able to achieve that sign.

    Baby Signs(R) does use ASL, but for the ones that are expecting too much of a young baby/toddler, well we “modified” them some. No complaints have ever come from those parents when seeing these signs learned easily and used often.

    I am big on ASL and do agree with you about a child learning ASL, but the same as you would not give a 1st grader algebra homework, you have to start small and work your way up there.

  50. This has been an interesting discussion. I’d like to address two points.

    Signing does not delay speech – it actually inspires the child to speak. Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn have spent 20 years studying this and other aspects of using sign language with babies. Here is a good place to start.

    And second I wanted to address the notion that using ASL is too difficult for a young child. Children will modify and adapt any sign to their ability. They can and will refine the sign as they age. A parent needs only to continue to reinforce the correct way of doing a particular sign. It’s the same process that follows speech development – a child may say “daa” for dog but when he gets a bit older he will say “dog.”

    Using only ASL is not expecting too much out of a baby or toddler. My two children who have signed have used ASL vocabulary and have approximated and refined each sign.

    That being said, I feel each parent should choose how they sign with their child, because the most important part at this stage is communication, reducing frustration and increasing bonding.

    I’m not sure if anyone is still reading this, but I enjoyed it!

    Monica, Owner,

  51. VERY interesting. Does anyone reading this know whether there is a body of research about persons who could both speak and sign before suffering dementia (e.g. Alzheimer’s, etc) and whether the aphasia that sometimes comes with it affects sign skills the same as speech skills? I’m wondering whether the aphasia is a memory/reason problem or a delivery problem.

  52. This thread appears to have run its course back in January, but I just found it while doing some research, so I’ll chime in now.

    Based on my own experience, as well as that of others I know (directly or indirectly), the claim that baby signing does not delay speech may NOT be universally true.

    My wife and I enthusiastically taught our daughter baby sign language from the time she was about 6 months old. Her first sign (after about a month of incubation) was the sign for light. She progressed quickly, picking up signs for “more”, “all done”, “eat”, “hat”, “dog”, and others. We were delighted she was able to communicate with us before she could talk.

    We were also fully expecting that baby-signing would accelerate her speech development, as researchers claim it should. Has it? We don’t know, because there’s no way of knowing when she as an individual would have started talking if we hadn’t been using sign language (there’s no “undo” feature in child-rearing!).

    But I can say she’s now 22 months old, and the only words she uses voluntarily are “Mama”, “Dada”, and “baby”. She also has a few other “words”, but they’re ones she invented for common objects. She uses them consistently but they bear little or no relation to the English equivalents. For example, she says “reh-reh” for towel, and something that sounds like “luv-luv” for washcloth – words she invented by the time she was about a year old. She also says “P” (pronounce just the letter “p”) for “please” and “W-w-w-w” for waffle.

    Her comprehension is fantastic, but she speaks few words and strongly favors sign language & gestures to express herself. She communicates multi-word throughts by combining signs and gestures (“The spider is sleeping with its snuggle blanket.”; “The dog wagged its tail against my knees”; etc. She’s very bright, has fantastic motor skills, has a passion for working with mechanical things, and is a sweet, fun-loving child who is otherwise entirely normal.

    We never discouraged her from talking (or signing), and we always used English words in conjunction with signs.

    Recently we’ve been much more active in encouraging her to speak, when a playful/fun opportunity to do so arises. She has responded somewhat (learning to say “Mom-my”, “Dad-dy”, and “Na-nie” [her pronunciation of her nickname, Lanie], but when it comes to her spontaneous expression, she’s still very much a signer.

    We’re a bit worried she might have a serious speech problem such as verbal apraxia, but we haven’t had her evaluated yet. If she does have apraxia or something else, sign language is probably the greatest gift we could have given her at an early age to avoid frustration. Ditto if she’s simply delayed for another reason. And possibly ditto in general.

    But the question lingers in my mind, has sign language somehow delayed her speec? Here is some anecdotal evidence which suggests the answer might be yes.

    First, my daughter was more verbal at an earlier age (12 months or earlier), attempting to imitate words. But as her signing grew more sophisticated, she seemed to lose interest in saying things, in favor of signing them.

    Second, my wife knows a mother who started teaching baby sign language to her triplets at age 1. They had been talking, sometimes in 2-word sentences, but all three of them stopped talking when they started learning to sign. It took over a year for their mother to get them back to their prior verbal skill level.

    Third, my own mother has a friend who is an SLP (speech & language pathologist) who says that based on her experience with one person in particular, baby signing delays speech (introducing signs caused cessation of speaking).

    Finally, our pediatrician (who seems neutral about our decision to use signing) has said that in her experience, babies who are taught baby sign language seem to start talking later, in spite of claims to the contrary.

    Let me be clear. I’m NOT saying that baby signing is bad or that it will likely delay speech. My wife and I have no regrets, and we will probably use baby signing with our next child, as it clearly gives a baby expressive capabilities he or she would not otherwise have at a tender young age.

    Our experiences do not constitute a study or a valid research sample, but they are still real-life exceptions to an apparent golden rule of baby signing, i.e. that it doesn’t delay speech.

    I would like to see more balanced studies done (or references to existing studies I’m unaware of) by more neutral parties who don’t have some kind of vested interested in baby signing. I’m not suggesting there’s any deception going on, but if you’re a firm believer in something, it can be difficult to do an entirely objective study.

    One last comment: Another possibility is that my daughter is a late talker along the lines that Thomas Sowell writes about in his book, titled something like “The Late Talker” (she has a lot of things in common with the profile drawn up by Sowell).

    Sorry for the long post but I wanted to back up a potentially controversial statement with some suppporting details.

    Feel free to contact me privately to discuss further. I welcome any open-minded commentary.


    PS – Completely off topic, I like Eric’s writings on CSS!

  53. The baby signing thing has been fascinating to me. I think it’s mostly a good thing that people are starting to understand and see the benefits of sign.

    As a professional sign language interpreter working with Deaf people, I would also reiterate that ASL is not somehow “too difficult” and children of Deaf parents learn ASL from their parents in the same way that children of hearing parents learn their spoken language. And the children learn in similar stages: “babbling” (mis-pronunciation of signs), single words, two-word sentences, etc. Just as hearing parents understand the babbling of their hearing children sooner than anyone else, so do parents of children who sign understand the sign-babble of those children sooner than others will.

    Regarding baby signing systems that encourage inventing signs or changing signs – I would personally encourage the use of ASL in its true form simply because there is already a community of people who use this language and lots of established resources for learning it – if a child grows up and has ASL as a second language, they can use this within that community and if they only sign a bit, then at least they sign things that others can understand… By the way, while babies cannot snap as mentioned by the person from BabySigns, adult ASL users actually don’t snap either – they approximate this movement or use the alternative ASL sign for dog which is tapping with a flat hand on the thigh.

    Regardless, the real horror that I have seen is with parents of deaf children who don’t sign – some who deny their child access to sign entirely (at home, at school, in social life). I work with adults who have been thus deprived of language accessible to them and they are very often lacking in not only general knowledge about the world, but lacking in language (of any kind) skills – the damage this can do to a person’s life is immeasurable.

    The more people who learn some sign or who learn ASL and the more who are open to the idea of signing, the better, if you ask me.

    Someone mentioned aphasia in deaf people compared with hearing people. In Deaf people who have ASL as their first language, the effect of aphasia (from whatever cause) is similar to the effect experienced by hearing people who use a spoken language. ASL is a complete and separate language, separate from English in grammar and syntax, etc. (so baby signing in whatever form is not often actually the child learning this other language, but the child learning some parts of that language). Those who have ASL as a native language have it in the same part of the brain as spoken language users.

    nope – don’t have the research to quote here off hand – but been studying it for a long time.

    my belated 2 or 3 cents…

  54. Although most of these comments were posted in January, I just found this site and have a few comments. After working in the public school system for 30 years I retired, moved to Houston and now take care of our 14 month old granddaughter. When I first became aware of Baby Sign language I was excited. I could actually get back into “teacher-mode”! Without a doubt the baby signs have enabled Sabrina to communicate with us with much less frustration for all of us. She too has developed a sign or two of her own, which shows a high level of language development . She already abandons signs when she is able to speak a word – only a couple at this point. What’s important is that she is learning what communication is all about – sending and receiving information. The areas of the brain that develop spoken language are the same ones that are stimulated through sign language. The sooner those areas are stimulated, the better. I just wish we had done this with our two daughters!

  55. You cannot compare IQ’s of kids that have learned this with others…Obviously there will be differences in who has access and resources to teach sign language to children.

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  57. Mitch,

    “Our experiences do not constitute a study or a valid research sample, but they are still real-life exceptions to an apparent golden rule of baby signing, i.e. that it doesn”t delay speech.”

    Everyone I know who has taught their baby to sign didn’t report any verbal problems.

  58. I started babysitting a 14 month old in September. At that time he was hitting and screaming and very angry and his parents just didn’t know what to do with him. I hadn’t heard of baby signing, but it seemed natural to me to start signing with him to provide communication tools to him. I just made things up. I started with just two signs that I repeated countless times a day/week while I was with him: “more” and “juice”. He learned “more” immediatly and always said the word with the sign (rather, his approximation of the word), just as I did. Even after months he never did the sign for “juice”, but he understood me when I would do it.

    He stopped acting out with me immediatly. Just one little word – more – was enough to empower him and reduce his frustration. He used it broadly, applying it to anything he actually wanted, including juice. He’d do/say “more” and then gesture to the object of desire. As I said before, it all seemed very natural to me and I thought nothing much of it. Until I saw him together with his parents.

    A few months after starting babysitting I had occasion to be together with baby and parent for the first time. I immediatly realized I’d forgotten the important step of informing the parents of the sign/word he produced. They were passing around a movie box and he wanted to see it, signing/saying “more” (sounding like “mo-mo-mo-mo-mo”). They completely ignored him and when he persisted they laughed at him and said “I don’t know why, but he does that noise all the time – he sounds like a seagull!” Poor baby! All the time and they didn’t know what he wanted, didn’t know their baby was speaking. His pleas turned quickly turned into screams and when his mother went to him he hit at her. I was shocked because I hadn’t seen this behavior in months. But to them, it was still normal.

    Needless to say, I made sure to have a conversation after this incident and we are all on the same page with signing and are transitioning away from my made up signs to ASL. As he has learned more signs/words, another unexpected benefit has arose.

    When he learns a sign and says the word with the sign, I discover that he has been saying that word all along, we just hadn’t recognised it. It’s like a rossetta stone, the sign tells me what word that sound is. When we understand and respond to the words he is saying, he sees that his speech is successful at communicating and this encourages him to speak more.

    I am very glad that I helped him start learning signing, it’s much better than the alternative!

  59. As a parent of a hearing Impaired child. I can honestly say sign language was the best thing that every happend her. She started signing at the age of 3 she is now 11. She no longer uses sign language to communicate as her vocal skills are perfect now. I must say she makes straight A”s and always has. She has always been way ahead of other students. They even wanted to her to skip a grade. I did not think that was the right thing to do at the time.
    A proffesor at Calldet University told me , that children that learn sign language as the first form of communication, have a tendency to be far more advanded in school up into about the fifth grade then it tends to level off, but it gives them one great advantage in the most important years of learning

  60. Here’s a link to the research on signing with hearing babies.

    A reason why signing encourages language development is because signing encourages parents to be very verbal. A baby sees a cat, the baby signs cat, the parent notices the cat and talks about it “Oh, do you see the cat? That’s a very pretty cat! I like the cat’s gray fur, do you?” Signing also gives baby an active role in books, which makes them more fun. Signing allows babies to ask to read books and sing songs. And reading books and singing rhymes promotes language development. Signing allows babies to pick the topic of conversation. And when babies are interested in the conversation, they’ll pay closer attention and learn more (don’t we all learn more when we care about what’s being said?).

    Each child is an individual and you can’t raise a child twice but the conducted research was very fair. They had a group of children who’s parents were encouraged to sign, a group of children who were encouraged to be extremely verbal and label objects with spoken words, and a group of children whose parents were given no instruction. Groups were equal in many different catagories: parents income and education, babies use of vocalizations, their birth rank, ect. And in test after test, the signing children did the best. And the older these babies became, the larger the gap became (i.e. tested signing children at age 3 were talking more like 4 year olds).

  61. Dear All,

    I babysit an 19month old who does some signs but has no interest in talking. Is there a way to ecourage him to talk also? He has a very hard time playing with other kids because they can’t communicate. He tends to bite children younger then him because he tries to sign to them. It also cause a issue on the playground because he does not say down he just lets go of something to use his hands to say down. I have a 9month old that has picked up on the sign language by watching this child which I think is great because they can play together better. The only issue is that the 9month old can repeat the word but the 19month old can’t. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to encourage him to talk also.

  62. i taught my 2nd daughter sign language because my first daughter(who was speaking in sentences at 18 months) was interested in learning it. so together we taught her baby sister. my second daughter was really good at signing as a baby and my older daughter could communicate with her. the problem like another on here stated, was that she did not speak more than a couple of words until after her 2nd birthday. we knew what she wanted, nut nobody else could understand her. my son(who is 14 months old now) has no interest in signing, but is speaking rather clear words. bottom line, i guess you do what is most convenient for you, the child and the family.


  63. Thank you for the wonderful article! It’s amazing the things that babies can learn and do so early. I have a baby signing site at Baby Sign Language or which provides free information about baby sign language. We would love to post a testimonial from you and your family? If so, please contact us at our site! Thank you again for the great article on baby sign language and hope to hear from you!

  64. Melissa – all babies do their own thing at their own age. Some babies don’t walk until 20 months, but it hasn’t impeded their development. All babies do their own thing at their own pace. Aren’t you happy that you were still able to know that your baby wanted? Suppose she is simply one of those babies that take their time? What would you have done in the mean time?

    Sign language does not hurt babies. Please see the benefits of baby sign language here: – has lots of information on how it also benefits your babies emotional, pschological, and intellectual being.

    I think your daughter is very lucky. :-)


  65. If you’re teaching your child sign language but are worried they may learn words more slowly – just be sure you ALWAYS say the word at the same time you are signing it as you’re teaching and reinforcing. If your child does the sign but does not say the word (or something that sounds like it), you should show him/her the sign back and say the word. My son is 17 months and has been signing since he was 10 months (just did ‘nurse’ back then) and now knows about a dozen or more signs and SAYS over 200 words. These are not just words he repeats, he truly knows what they mean. I think the sign language has helped him develop even better language skills.
    It has been really nice because although my son is talking a lot – he changes up the way he says things sometimes and some words sound the same…so to have a fall back is nice – – for example….he said ‘Meesa’ the other day – which is how he usually says ‘medicine’…but he meant ‘music’ and I knew that because he did the sign for music.
    It’s also common for a 2nd or 3rd child to talk less – they don’t have to as their older sibling does the talking for them often.

  66. Pingback :: » Blog Archive » Baby signing

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  67. What a lively discussion on the topic of infant sign language! I’m based out of Seattle, WA and run a business I created called Hop to Signaroo. I teach American Sign Language to hearing families who use it w/their hearing babies to aid early communication and reduce frustration. I’m glad to see so many astute parents shared their experiences here, dispelling the myth that the use of signs will slow down speech. There has been no proof to that claim and research proving just the opposite. There are links on my website with some of the research studies. Feel free to visit and check out my FAQ page, as well as the page with current research links.

    One thing I did want to address, however, is Eric’s comment that the Baby Sign book/program is a simplified version of American Sign Language (ASL). Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Baby Sign program and philosphy began with made-up gestures that were not/are not related to ASL, which by the way is the third most commonly used language in our country after English and Spanish. With the last printing of the Baby Signs book, some ASL signs were added to their system of made-up gestures but as someone who has signed for nearly twenty years, some of the signs labeled as ASL are not ASL signs I have ever seen. (Granted there are sometimes slight regional differences in ASL and this does not account for the discrepencies I’ve noticed.) The authors of the Baby Signs book did amazing research and were two of the pioneers in the use of sign language (or in this case, made-up gestures) with babies, but have no background in American Sign Language. Joseph Garcia (affiliated with the Sign2Me link noted above) self-published his book on baby sign language about the same time as the Baby Sign authors but did not initially get the press or recognition for also being a leader in the field. He certainly has now and almost every other baby sign language book on the market is purely ASL-based. I did run across a book published here in the U.S. that uses New Zealand Sign Language, so it’s wise to educate yourself on your book choices. Sign language is not universal, as many people believe. As a former Special Education Teacher and someone who has been signing within the Deaf community and for nearly twenty years, you can likely guess where my loyalties are. Therefore, I will simply that say if parents decide to teach their babies sign language, do your homework on the materials and classes you choose. A legitamite second language like ASL is the most logical choice for most parents (again see my FAQ page on my website) more many reasons and an amazing gift of early communication for your hearing baby who will indeed speak normally and on schedule once their vocal chords are fully formed. Happy signing, all!

  68. We started signing with our daughter when she was about 6 months old and her first sign was and approximation of “more” when she was about 9 months old. She used about one new sign each month until she was about a year old, then she exploded with signs. One day last week she used 3 new signs that she never used before. And today she signed “please” for the first time. I also like that not only is she learning to communicate, but she’s learning manners as well. She is now 17 months old and has a signing vocabulary of about 25-30 words. She verbalizes about 5-10 words, but tends to use the sign first. I encourage all of my friends that are having babies to get an ASL dictionary and just start using it. I felt a little silly at first, especially in public. But now I am proud to use it and have her show off her wonderful signing talent. Although some people assume that she is hearing impaired so I explain to them the benefits of using sign with babies. It is wonderful!

  69. As a special education teacher and grandmother of an 18 month old child whose parents are teaching sign language, I definitely have concerns about delayed spoken language. At 12 months,the baby was cooing, making speech approximations and sounds, but has since preferred using sign language to communicate his wants/needs and does not even attempt to verbalize. I think that up to 16 months it was helpful to parents to reduce frustrations, but am concerned about the long term speech delays at this point. I would like to see a web site with research about the subject. Thanks

  70. Hi Ann,

    You asked for research addressing concerns about the use of sign language delaying speech. There has been no evidence indicating that the use of American Sign Language with hearing babies slows down their speech. Actually, there has been research supporting the fact that the use of signs increases overall language and speech development. Please check out this link on my website, which features four articles supporting and detailing this research.

    As I mentioned in my previous post, I am a former Special Ed. teacher too and have taught the parents of nearly 1,400 Seattle-area babies in my Hop to Signaroo classes. This weekend marks the seven year anniversary of my classes and I certainly would not be teaching these classes (or would have stayed in this full-time business) if the use of signs in anyway delays speech. When a little one stops vocalizing (cooing and babbling), the family’s pediatrician should be looking at other possible causes of this. Has a hearing test been conducted? Speech is a natural reflex in all of us. Even deaf babies babble until it’s no longer self- stimulating. Has the baby been tested for Apraxia or other physical concerns in the mouth or throat, which could be impeding continued speech development? We all come to the planet with the desire and ability to speak, so a normally developing baby will not “choose” signing over speech. I would recommend that your grandchild’s hearing be tested and that the pediatrician look into other possible causes for the sudden decline in typical speech development. There hasn’t been a single documented case of the use of American Sign Language prompting a normally developing hearing child to stop talking, so I highly suspect something else is at play here. Best of luck, and I hope this info helps.

  71. This conversation is so interesting. I have a 13 month old daughter and I had intended to teach her to sign. However, I never seemed to have time to learn them myself, so I just sang, talked and read to her a lot. Anyway, she now has a huge spoken vocabulary. Her speech is also clear enough that people can understand about 90% of what she says. Her only real speech problems are that she substitutes an ‘n’ sound for ‘l’. (‘light’ is pronounced ”night’, for instance.) All other phonemes are clear. She can say 1-, and 2-, syllable words and is now moving on to 3- syllables. She says all everyday words, not just in imitation, but she’ll notice things herself and talk about them. For instance if she looks at a watch, she’ll say, ‘watch’, then ‘clock’ and ‘tick tock’. She is just beginning to say short phrases, like, ‘Oh well’, ‘Here you are’, ‘Oh my’ and ‘good girl’. So while I know that baby sign language is popular, it is definitely not necessary! Babies can speak and express themselves without learning sign language. However, I can see that sign language can help babies to understand that things have a name, and receive positive feedback so that their attempts at communication can be understood, since once they make these connections they will quickly begin to experience their ‘language explosion’.

  72. I thought you story was adorable… I, too, have many stories of my daughter signing the words she thinks are the correct terms… We did not use sign language with our older three children. We began after our third child suffered a stroke that left him with a condition called Receptive Aphasia. He was 2 years old. By the time our 4th child was born, we were fluent in ASL and became shocked when she began making simple signs at 10 months. She signed as fluently as anyone by the time she was 16 months. She is now 3 years old and has the verbal skills of an average 6 year old. I tend to believe there is a direct corralation- Nto to mention the simple benefit of a child be raised to feel that they have a voice from such an early age! Best Wishes to you!

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  74. I’ve had a very similar experience, baby signing is fantastic. My 17 month son signs about 25 words, super-smart too! He also has Down Syndrome

  75. Cute!
    My 12 month old can do 15 signs, and recognizes 10 others. I started from the day he came home from the hospital. I felt like such and idiot most of the time when he just laid there staring at me. I knew I HAD TO MAKE IT ROUTINE. My biggest advice to anyone:) Great to hear other peoples success stories, Baby Signs are truly a boost to any child’s language skills.

  76. Using sign language with babies and toddlers is a wonderful thing to do! My son signed when he was 9 months old and my daughter first signed when she was 11 months old. At 18 months of age they both had over 80 words (20 verbal words and 60+ signs).

    As preschoolers and school-aged children we’ve continued to sign. It’s fun and I know that it”s helped their reading skills!


    Sara Bingham, WeeHands Founder
    Author of The Baby Signing Book
    T: 1-866-746-SIGN

    “There are no hands so small that they cannot make a difference in the world.” – Author Unknown

  77. I have read through all the comments and it is great to see the positive outweigh the concerns. I taught babysigning from 2004 and, in that time, I have seen countless babies and toddlers signing away happily and now I meet them in the street – their speech is just brilliant!! There is always going to be a child who will develop at a slower rate of speech but for the majority, it’s a win-win situation. The youngest child I saw signing in my class was 11 weeks old signing for milk. The mum had just concentrated on that sign alone since birth but the evidence was there – everyone was gasping when they saw it. For most parents though, they will start seeing physical signs from their baby around 5 months after repetative teaching of a few signs. Eventually, I decided to put my classes in a workbook so that parents could practise at home too. I use adapted nursery rhymes so you can learn the signs as you sing them throughout the day.

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    […] He looked at me like I was from Mars. "My wife knows what the baby needs. There's no need for sign language." The 'that's stupid' was implied, if not expressed. I respect his opinion, but I beg to differ. It really is a joy, and others agree. […]

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