Reading the Signs

Published 18 years, 7 months past

Back in January, I wrote about teaching Carolyn sign language, and enough time has passed and things changed that it seems like a good time to revisit the topic.  (Also, our friend Gini wrote about it, and that spurred me into typing.)

As I mentioned back in January, we started out with Baby Signs but moved on to American Sign Language (ASL).  This has held true, and when the next child comes into our lives, we’ll use only ASL signs.  To me, the real value of Baby Signs is in showing you where to start: with needs like food, water, milk, and so on.  In moving to ASL, we’ve been immensely helped by the Signing Time video series, which Carolyn loves.  She watches one every other day or so, which is about as much TV as we let her watch, and she can identify each one with a different sign.

At the time I last wrote about it, Carolyn was using about thirty signs.  She’s now somewhere past two hundred signs—I don’t know the exact number, as Kat and I lost track a while ago.  This includes all the primary colors, emotional states, and much more.  She’s also started to speak, with about twenty or so verbal words.  It gets really fascinating when she combines them.

For example, she’s started asking me if I’m done working whenever I come downstairs from my office.  She does this by saying “Daddy?” while signing “work” and then “done”.  If I confirm that I’m done working for the day (or at least for the moment), she’ll do it all over again, except this time saying “Daddy” in a satisfied tone of voice instead of as a question.  Then we spend some time playing.

In fact, one of these exchanges led to Carolyn telling me what she wanted to do when she grows up.  After confirming that Daddy was done working for the day, she thought a minute, then signed “work” and emphatically pointed to herself.

You want to work?” I asked, a little bit surprised.  She nodded and said “yeah!” (one of her favorite spoken words).

“Okay”, said I, amused, “what do you want to do when you work?”

She thought a moment more and then signed “airplane”.  My mouth dropped open.

“You want to be a pilot?” I asked.

She said “yeah!” again, quite enthusiastically, and then ran off to kick a ball across the yard.

Now, it’s possible that Carolyn was saying that she wants to do whatever Daddy does, because when he leaves for a few days, he’s left on a plane.  But my gut feeling was that she was saying she wanted to work on or with airplanes.  Attendant, sure; engineer, why not?; but pilot was the first thing that came to mind.

Then again, about a week later, she told us she wanted to work on swings and slides.  So I guess she’s still evaluating her options.

She also can identify different bedtime stories through signs and speech.  “The Bear’s Water Picnic” is represented by the sign for “water”; “Goodnight Moon” by the sign for “moon”; “Pete the Sheep” by the spoken word “baa”; and so on.  Although she usually picks the same set of stories each night, she can clearly tell us when she wants something different.

For months now, Carolyn’s been able to distinguish between being hurt and being scared when she falls down.  As we hold her, we just ask her if the fall hurt or scared her, and she tells us.  That alone would have made the whole effort worthwhile, because she has told us what the problem is, and so we know how best to comfort her.  It also seems to calm her down simply to tell us, the same way it can make an adult feel better just to say out loud what is upsetting them.

She can also tell us when we’re being silly, when she’s surprised, and more.  When a baby near her cries, she always looks concerned.  We can tell her that the baby is sad, or grumpy, or hungry, and she can sign back the emotion to indicate she understands.

So has signing delayed her speech?  There’s no way to know.  Her speaking vocabulary is on track, according to our pediatrician: some kids do speak early, but to have three spoken words at 18 months is normal, and she was at five.  Plus over 100 signs, which has caused our pediatrician to consider her bilingual.  According to the father of a deaf child with whom I recently conversed, most independent studies show that signing has no major impact, positive or negative, on speech development, at least across the whole study group.

Regardless of whether or not the signing has slowed or sped Carolyn’s development of speech, it has quite definitely accelerated her ability to communicate.  That, to me, was the whole reason to use signs.  For a year now, she’s been able to communicate her needs and wants, and for at least half a year she’s been able to converse with us in some fairly complex ways.

Perhaps as a result of this, Carolyn is entirely capable of following multistep directions, like: “Please go pick up the stuffed cow and put it where it belongs, then come back to Mommy”.  If she’s nervous about a person or situation, we can find out what’s bothering her and show her that it’s okay; conversely, we can tell her when something is dangerous when it might not appear to be, like a hot plate, and get confirmation that she understands.  We’ve been able to teach her to sign “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me”, and she understands when each is appropriate, sometimes saying them without prompting.  We can get her to calm down for a not-desired nap by asking what she wants to do instead of napping, and then telling her she can do it later, after she takes the nap.  In other words, she’ll agree to delay gratification, so long as we assure her that she’ll get what she wants after doing something that we want her to do.

Remember that she’s not yet two years old.

While Kat and I sometimes augment our words with signs, most of the time we just talk to Carolyn, and she responds with whatever combination of words and signs is needed.  So she has all kinds of exposure to speech, and her development in that regard seems fairly normal.  It could be that she’d have spoken earlier without the signs, but then again it could be that she’d have spoken later.  Maybe the signs have reduced the incentive to speak because she can get by without speech, or maybe the signs have shown her how powerful communication is and thus increased the incentive to speak.

We have no way to know, now or ever.  All that I know is that she has been communicating with us for many, many months more than she would have otherwise, and that she’s almost certainly a much happier and better-adjusted child as a result.

Back in May, I said that “…if you’re a new parent or a parent-to-be, I strongly recommend that you try this with your own baby”.  Take that sentiment and increase it by an order of magnitude.  I truly believe it’s one of the best parenting decisions we ever made.

Comments (24)

  1. Eric,

    Sara and I have been practicing our signs.

    Sadly with various SLs being different, ironically, our (nearly here) daughter may not be able to sign with yours even if they can speak together.


  2. I’m really interested in this signs, and I hope to find information in Europe in how using and teaching them.
    Thank you very much for this story.


  3. We have been teaching our son sign language.

    He’s sorted out “more” and “all done” for eating and knows the sign for just about every animal! He also knows other basic signs for getting his wishes over, like “hat” and “shoes” for when he wants to go out.

    It’s great that he has the opportunity to communicate with us before he can speak.

  4. Eric,

    How old was Carolyn when you began teaching her Baby Signs? I’ve tried a bit with our 4 1/2 mo. old – but I think I’m just being eager.

  5. Thanks for the update, Eric. We’re probably several years away from having kids, but it’s fascinating to learn about your progress. I definitely want to give it a try when we do.

  6. My brother- and sister-in-law have done some ASL work with their younger son, now almost 18 months. He quickly picked up “drink” (or is it “juice?”), “more” and “done.” They didn’t go too far with it as they were concerned that it was going to start impacting his spoken language skills. They found that although he could speak the words when he wanted to, he leaned more toward the signing.

  7. Great post, Eric. My sister has a 6 year-old son who has a chromosonal disorder that has caused him to be very slow to learn to speak. However, with sign language he has been very able to convey his wants and needs. I’m pretty sure my wife and I will be teaching our children sign language as well.

  8. I bought the “Signing with your baby” tape and book set and tried teaching our son when he was at the earliest age recommended. Although he picked up on some of the basics eventually, he never quite took off like I had expected. There are several factors involved that may explain this, one being that he was later diagnosed ADHD with some very light Autistic symptoms, but I was very surprised by my partner’s reluctance to participate in the training and our family’s resistance to the concept as being the cause for his delay in speech development because “he didn’t have to speak”. I suspect that the later ADHD/Autism diagnosis was the prime issue with the delays and not the signing.

    Yes, my partner saw the video and testimonials about the successes of signing, but since she pretty much refused to participate there was not much I could do. Even with the recommendations from the specialist that diagnosed him later with ADHD/Autism, she would not sign with him. I got him to learn “more” “water” “please” “airplane” and I think, “thank you” on my own but not much more beyond that.

    In his kindergarten and life skills classes they use signing extensively when working with the kids. Now at six, our son can express him self fairly well verbally but he rarely signs at all. I”ve seen him us “more” on occasion but that”s it, and possibly only because he sees it at school.

    In spite of all that, I still believe that signing is a critical and obviously successful way to initiate early communications with your child. And reading about other parents successes just makes me sad and confused by the initial resistance of my family. But life goes on, and our son has adapted and grown, and provides us with moments of pride, joy and humor, but I can”t help but wonder where we would be if we both had been more dedicated to using signing with him.

    Keep up the good work and the best to you and your family. I”ll bet Carolyn not only becomes a pilot, but perhaps the first woman on Mars!

  9. Out of the 100+ signs your daughter knows, my favorite has got to be the one for “lion.”


  10. My nearly five year old son is autistic. Soon after his diagnosis three or so years ago, he was taught very simple sign language. Things like “more” and “all done”. Within a week, his violent tantrums decreased in frequency from hourly to just about every other day. It seems that the majority of this tantrums were based in frustration in not being able to communicate with us.

    He picked it up quickly. Within a month, he even began to joke with my wife at feeding time. When she’d ask him if he wanted more, he’d bring his hands together, fingers bunched up getting ready to tap them together for “more”, then he’d fake her out and pass his hands by each other and make the sign for “all done”. Then, he’d giggle. It was quite an improvement.

    Now, after hours and hours of therapy and enrollment in a pre-K PDD classroom, he can not only speak, but converse (with adults primarily), read at a 2nd grade level and do simple math.

    But it all started with signing.

  11. Eric,

    my brother just sent me a link to your site….I guess he figured I could relate. See, my wife and I have also been teaching our young daughter ASL, just like you. My daughter is just about to turn 18 months old and she seems to be making the same progress as your daughter in both speech and sign. In fact, you could probably take your entry and replace Carolyn with Ella and you have our situation.

    I am a firm believer that ASL has helped my child in so many ways. I would strongly recommend that every parent teach their child some sort of sign (be it baby sign or ASL) to help lower both the parents and the childs frustration levels. It is so much easier when the child can just tell you they want milk, if they’re all done, if they want more….never mind the fact that later on 14-18 months) they can form sentences like asking to write (or draw) at the table.

    As far as stunting the development of the child, I have to say this…
    every child learns and grows in their own manner and at their own rate. For some, speech (language skills) comes early. For others, somersaulting (balance) comes early. Then there are others who grow (in size and weight) before developing other skills. (As an aside: most children will reach approximately the same level in each skill by the time they reach 5 years of age).

    my point is that not all babies develop the same skills at the same time. Language skills are tricky at best….sometimes they don”t develop until the child is well over 2. There is no way of knowing when your child will develop those skills….all ASL does is gives them a means to communicate well before language is ever learned.

    Other than that, good luck with potty training.


  12. Pingback ::

    Operation: Leaf Blower » Update


    First off, check out Eric Meyer’s take on children and sign language he calls Reading the Signs. He’s referencing his two-year old daughter, Carolyn, an […]

  13. I am a hearing child of a deaf parent, which makes all of this quite interesting to read. My speech was delayed quite a bit, but when I did start speaking I spoke in full sentences.
    Mostly I wanted to respond to the first post by John about the varieties of signed languages. A language is a set of symbols that are agreed upon by a certain population. There is only one, arguably two signed language. The first, obviously, is American Sign Language. The second is called pidgin which is a entirely ASL signs used in a combinatination of English and ASL word order. Signed English, or SEE, is not a language. Please try to steer clear of SEE for a number of reasons, but particularly if you hope to have your child be bilingual. SEE is a manual code for English, and deaf people by and large do not use it. It is too hard to convey complex ideas, and it is too hard on the hands. It takes away from the beauty of a language, not to mention it doesn’t even help the child understand English. Stick with ASL. Baby signs are okay for beginning to learn how to teach your child, but if you use ASL with them, I feel the amazing progress Eric described would be multiplied. Granted it isn’t so easy to just learn ASL to teach to your child, it is much easier to teach sign by sign. Even so, try to make sure that you get your information about signs from a reputable source. Try

  14. I think it is simply amazing to be teaching a child to learn sign language, and that she understands. I remember in Elementry school our Librarian knew some, and we would usually use some in our Spring Concert.

    When I have kids (hopefully a long time from now- I’m just a Junior in High School) this will definatly be of intrest to me- to not only teach a kid to talk to other students, but other students with hearing disabilities is so cool.

  15. Eric, your friend is correct in that studies show that ASL does not delay speech or English development. Strong, Prinz, Hoffmeister, Padden, and Ramsey are a few researchers who have done studies in this area. The key here is language acquisition, in whatever form is most accessible to the child – be it English or ASL, visual or auditory. That’s what “wires” the brain for later proficiency in language, even if the child switches to a different language later on.

    I am completely deaf (no measurable hearing at all) and have been since 18 months old. But because I was exposed to spoken language in the first 18 months of my life AND my parents switched to sign language almost immediately after I lost my hearing, I did not suffer the language delays often seen in people deaf from birth or from an early age. Many times, people like me suffer language delays because they were not given adequate exposure to ANY language, either because their deafness went undiagnosed for a long time, or because their parents were against sign language or simply didn’t know what to do.

    My partner (hearing) is working on a PhD in deaf education with a focus in bilingual education and literacy. We plan to use full-fledged ASL with our children from birth and also expose them to English, regardless of whether they are hearing or deaf. I am thrilled to read of your successes in using baby sign and some ASL. Kudos to you and Kat! :)

  16. My wife teaches baby sign language and I could not believe how much frusteration it cut down on while our kids where young and also how much interaction it encouraged at a very young age. My daughter knew about daddy going to work at 15 months and constantly communicated to us what she was thinking about long before she could talk. It certainly did not delay her speech. Some studies suggest that it encourages early speech because it stimulates the child to communicate earlier. Many children delayed in speech are delayed because they lack interest in communication (not because they lack the physical ability to speak).

  17. I’ve just begun teaching baby signs in the DC area with a few sessions. This blog entry is just wonderful!

    For other parents/commentors who have struggled to get their kids to sign or expand their signing vocabularies…all I can say is just remain consistent with signs. At least, be satisfied that your baby/child can respond when you sign to them. It shows that they understand you. There are ways to get your child to sign…it just takes creativity.

    Again, wonderful blog entry!!!

  18. I’m a lucky pappa for the second time, and am intrigued with the notion of signing as an early form of communication. When is a good age to start? Would you recommending starting with Baby Signs and migrating to ASL as you have done, or start with ASL?

  19. I’m a work/stay-at-home daddy of a two year-old. Just wanted to say thanks for the personal posts in addition to the professional entries. This particular post came on a day when I was exceptionally busy and frustration on both of our parts was high. Your post made me stop, close the computer, and just do toddler stuff with my daughter for an hour.

    Though we never really explored the sign language option, we only talked about it, my wife and I have been fortunate that my daughter had a strong vocabulary very early on. It certainly prevented some frustration on her part as well as ours. I will certainly explore the ASL option if we have another.

  20. Eric, your account does not surprise me in the slightest. Best decision indeed.

    Nancy and I taught Lex ASL using “Sign With Your Baby.” Worst case, we figured we were all having fun together as a family. Never did we think our child would be hindered as a result of learning another language.

    Not only did Lex emerge unscathed once he could speak, but the degree to which he could express himself (via signing or speaking), tell stories or understand multistep directions never ceased to amaze us. Even our friends, family and neighbors took notice, and not with the “ooh, isn’t that cute” kind of comment. More like the jaw dropping, “I can’t believe I’m actually seeing/hearing this” variety. (Most of them didn’t realize we were teaching him ASL either.)

    I realize that each child develops differently, not everyone who tries ASL will get the same results, and Lex certainly did not reach 200+ signs like Carolyn has (a remarkable achievement in my book, kudos to the three of you). Regardless, I still think ASL is worth a shot if anyone’s considering trying it – no question.

    Remember, it’s the journey, not the destination.

  21. To those who have asked about my thoughts on when to start, how to start, and what course to take, I’ll be posting my thoughts on that in a new entry very soon. I also hope to respond to some of the other comments here in the very near future.

  22. John: you know they say the great thing about standards is that there are so many from which to choose!

    DaveMo: I’m sorry to hear that your partner wasn’t willing to try it out—that sort of disconnect is never fun, no matter what the situation. As you say, it’s a lot tougher when only one parent is making the effort.

    Ryan: yeah, go figure! (And it’s 200+ now.)

    Ken: that is completely awesome; thank you so much for sharing it! We haven’t had to face anything close to those kinds of challenges, but we’ve definitely seen a low level of frustration in Carolyn, so I can add our anecdotal evidence to yours. It’s also interesting to me that his frustration was largely based on an inability to communicate. That, for me, illuminates the nature of autism (at least your son’s autism) in some pretty profound ways, indicating that there is intelligence behind the ‘mask’, and the problem lies in communicating with the outside world. So thanks again for sharing your experience.

    And to everyone else who’s contributed their experiences, interest, and insight, thank you! I’ve read all your comments and really appreciate your taking the time to contribute. It’s great to know that there are others signing with their babies, and still more who plan to do so.

  23. Eric, I’ve been reading about your experiences with Carolyn and signing with interest, because although I don’t have kids or any immediate plans to have some I think that signing is definitely something I would try should I ever decide to become a parent. I found this article today that I thought was interesting and which you might like to use as further evidence that teaching babies to sign is a good idea: Sign Language Improves Mental Abilities.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  24. It’s never too early to teach a baby how to sign OR to speak. Mama or dada comes in at just probably 4 months and maybe earlier. If we follow that timeline, why not start signing at the same time? If anyone’s concerned about wanting the child to learn more signs, invite another parent of a deaf child, and you’ve got a playmate. Trust me, both kids will accelerate their ASL skills and end up teaching YOU. It’s a very weird turning-the-table-on-you thing, but it will happen, I guarantee it.

    Just be very careful with hearing aids. Some causes migraines in deaf children, regular headaches in others, and for me – it literally rattles my eyeballs when I hear anything louder than conversational volumes. “Silence is golden” and people who like working in silence – I never take those two for granted, and battering what auditory nerves your kids have left with hearing aids or cochlear implants only results in permanent damage. I had aids in both ears for most of my life, and just 6 years ago discovered that the left ear has gone down the drain so much that the only hope I have is a cochlear implant operation that has the huge risk of leaving half my face paralyzed. The cold fact hit me… hearing aids do damage rather than good. So I only wear them when the children are present.

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