Signing Up

Published 18 years, 8 months past

After my recent post about teaching Carolyn sign language, several people, many of them new or soon-to-be parents, asked for advice on the basics.  Right up front, let me say that I’m not an expert in signing, or early childhood development, or any of that stuff.  I’m just a parent who’s tried to do his best for his daughter.  That counts for a lot, but this is still just one person’s perspective.  Before embarking on any program, consult your physician, blah blah blah.  Get me?  Cool.

So here’s what we learned, and what we plan to do with our next child.  (That’s not a stealth announcement, by the way.)

When we started out, it was with the book Baby Signs by Acredolo and Goodwyn.  The Baby Signs program—and it is a whole program now, with franchises and everything—employs a reduced and somewhat simplified subset of American Sign Language (ASL).  Many of the Baby Signs are in fact copies of ASL signs, but there are a few that are not.  The simplifications are meant to compensate for the lack of fine motor skills in infants.  For example, one sign for “dog” is snapping one’s fingers.  There’s no way most infants, or even toddlers, are going to be able to snap their fingers.  (Heck, some adults can’t manage it.)  So the Baby Sign for “dog” is to stick out your tongue and pant like a dog.

Where I think the book really helped us was in laying out the path for where to start, and how to proceed.  The basic advice is to start with needs like food, drink, and so on.  You make the association by speaking the word and making the sign as they interact with the thing.  So when you’re feeding your baby, as the spoon goes in, you say and sign “food”.  You do this often at each meal.

The time Acredolo and Goodwyn say to start is when your baby starts waving hello or goodbye to people.  This indicates that they have made a connection between a physical movement and a concept.  Kat and I, on the other hand, started when Carolyn was six months old, long before she started waving.  We kept it up for four months, demonstrating the same few signs over and over as part of our routine.  When she ate, we signed “food” and “bottle”; when it was bed time, we signed “sleepy”; and so on.  The important things were that we didn’t make a huge deal out of it, and we didn’t stop.  We just did it as if it were an everyday thing.

By ten months, Carolyn started to get it, right around the same time she started waving goodbye.  By her first birthday, she was able to stay with her grandparents for two days and nights and not throw any tantrums.  When she wanted something, she said so.  The grandparents, may I say, were astonished; here they had this 12-month-old who would just come up to them and say “hungry”—no fuss, no tears, no tantrums.

(And note the phrasing I just used in that paragraph.  To Kat and me, “saying” is now equally applicable to speaking and signing.  This experience has altered our view of communication in ways we couldn’t have imagined before we started.)

We most likely could have started at nine months, or even waited until she started waving, and still been successful in teaching her to sign.  On the other hand, it may well be that the reason Carolyn has taken her signing so far is we laid a broad foundation for it.  On the third hand, it could be that she’s become so proficient in signing due to the Signing Time videos we got her.  Each video has music, visual reinforcement of concepts, and demonstrations of signs from a woman who speaks it fluently.  (You can read more about the back story on their site.)  Carolyn loves music, and the songs are some of her favorites.  We bought one of the music CDs, and sometimes Carolyn will try to sign along with the songs.

One thing about the Signing Time videos is that they teach straight ASL, with no simplification for toddlers.  (They’re really meant for pre-schoolers and later, though the company has since come out with a set of Baby Signing Time videos.)  That’s something we definitely plan for the next child: to teach regular ASL, and not use the simplified signs from Baby Signs.  The child may not get every sign exactly, but they’ll get close and we’ll know what they mean.  We see that with Carolyn now, and if you think about it, it’s no surprise that a signer would not do every sign exactly as the manual shows it.  Do those of us who speak say every word, and construct every sentence, exactly as the rules of our languages dictate?  I think not.

We will, however, use the approach from Baby Signs: start with needs, demonstrate signs as we say the corresponding word, and be patient.  And we’ll probably start early, like we did with Carolyn.  If she’s still signing when the baby arrives, then it’ll be exposed to signs even younger than was Carolyn.

Something to point out is that neither Kat nor I knew any signing when we started.  We’ve learned with Carolyn, and thanks to the videos, I think she knows a few more signs than we do.  So even if you don’t know signing now, that’s no barrier to trying this.  At the outset, it will be simple enough that you’ll have no trouble remembering the signs you’re teaching.  After that, if the signing takes off, you should easily be able to keep up with new signs.  In expanding our signing vocabulary, we’ve found the ASL Browser (as seen in a recent episode of Alien Loves Predator) to be very valuable.  It doesn’t contain every word you can imagine, but it has just about everything you’ll really need.

The other thing is that you’ll probably have quite a few friends, relatives, and such ask you if you’re doing the right thing, or why you’re wasting your time.  If you know a speech therapist, you may have to be prepared for dismissiveness of, or even outright hostility to, what you’re doing.  If you’re going to be easily discouraged by that sort of thing, it might be better not to start at all.  The first few weeks or months of effort will be discouraging enough, as your baby will likely just look at you with a puzzled expression when you sign.  (Of course, most babies that age are puzzled by half of what they see, so it’s not like you’ll be alone.)  Babies, like most of us, crave routine and are bothered by inconsistency.  If you’re going to start, you have to stick with it.

Obviously, I can’t guarantee that every child will take to signing as well as Carolyn did, or even that they’ll take to it at all.  Some parents I’ve talked to said they tried signing, but their kid started talking at ten months so there was no need for signs.  Others have said their kids just never showed much interest in signs—including, astonishingly enough, some deaf children.  But I can say that signing can very definitely work, and work well.  We’ve been talking with (as opposed to talking to) Carolyn for a year now.  Had we not used the signs and her speech had developed at the same rate, we’d just now be starting to talk with her, and only in very limited ways.

I hope this little glimpse of my experience will be a help to some of you out there.

Comments (17)

  1. I grew up with a hearing impaired sister, so sign language became a necessity during my childhood, and it has paid off throughout my life. I was surprise years later when I was married, that my wife was using sign language as an Early Childhood Education teacher (toddler – 2 y/o) for hearing children. The difference: These children are a year or two further along in development (mental and fine-motor skills) then children who have not had the opportunity. I do not know why this is, I just know it works. I strongly recommend teaching children sign language .

  2. Thank you, Eric — that was exactly the information and perspective I was hoping for (the experiences and thoughts from one parent to another). It still sounds very interesting, and now I have a basis with which to go do some of my own learning. Thanks again!

  3. Eric,

    Very interesting! Last thing I would have expected to read on your blog. I have an interest in signing since I started learning Auslan (Australian Sign Language) at high school, and have since made many Deaf friends.

    I’d have to agree with your desision to use ASL over simplified/made up “Baby Signs” – it’s one thing the Deaf community here seems to agree with, too. If you’re going to teach your child to sign, you might as well use a real language! Your justification makes sense, too (“The child may not get every sign exactly, but they”ll get close and we”ll know what they mean.”).

    Good work, keep it up, and keep us posted on how it all goes!

  4. I wonder what the possibilities are of learning sign language to children in non-English countries… Are those videos you mentioned fit for that?


  5. Eric – I’m old school (that is, my kids were born before this program took hold). I think I understand the goal: the idea is that kids have ideas in their heads that they can’t audibly articulate and the signing lets them convey that idea to you, such as, “hungry.” Right?

    And there seems to be no connection between signing and delaying audible, verbal speech?

    I can see where it would be nice to not have to struggle with saying, “Honey, I’m so sorry – I have no idea what you want” when a kid is upset and in need.

    But, being old school, and a social worker, and a sociologist, I have to really think about this. My kids all spoke early – before one year old. And even at age 5 and age 8 (my oldest is almost 12), there are still times when those two younger ones can’t express themselves well enough to tell me what they really want to. Signing would serve no purpose at that point.

    I’ve not read the literature on this development, I’ve only heard about it. I’m not skeptical, I’d like to know more. Where does it get the child, where does it get the family? And what, if anything, is given up by using the tool?

    You don’t have to answer – almost more rhetorical. The best part: you obviously have a deep relationship with your wife and daughter.

  6. Laurens,

    As far as I know, almost every country has their own sign language – even if it is very similar to the sign language of another country. (Auslan, for instance, is based on BSL, or British Sign Language, while ASL comes from the French Sign Language (FSL, or LSF). I belive Thai sign language is also similar to ASL/LSF).

    Anyway, my point is, that you’ll probably find the Deaf community in most countries will have information and resources for signing with your baby in your own local sign language. VicDeaf ( is one example in Australia – they run baby sign classes in Auslan (AUstralian Sign LANguage). Have a look into it – I can’t imagine you’d be disappointed.

  7. Norma and I have used sign language with both our kids. There’s no control group of course, but I personally belive it’s made quite a difference. We didn’t follow any particular system and only covered two dozen signs or so, but that seemed to be enough to dodge a lot of tantrums due to a lack of ability to communicate. The only problem we’ve run into is our son is currently 15 months old and has had such great luck getting what he wants using the single sign for ‘more’ that he has begun to use it completely out of context. It’s almost like he thinks moving his hands in the ‘more’ sign allows us to read his mind. I’m sure this is due to our going it alone and not doing any heavy research or following any particular system. On a side note, my mother in law is a speech pathologist and she thinks it’s great.

  8. Eric, i usually read your css gems, but this one caught my eye, because The Age (Melbourne) recently ran a piece on this topic, called If we could talk to the toddlers. (‘plug’: A friend has recently started teaching parents to use an adapted form of Australian Sign (Auslan) – which sounds like fun.

    i love your no-fuss description of a child saying ‘hungry’ at 12 months! (Always found that a little bit of Auslan helped my teaching English enormously – being able to say something with a gesture, or a facial expression is invaluable.)

    Yes, it’s funny, that assumption that because American and Australian hearing people can understand each other, the respective Deaf communities also can – i remember the worst example of this was when the stage version of “Children of a Lesser God” was performed in American Sign – and the local Deaf community couldn’t understand a word :(

    regards, micahel

  9. I used to teach sign language classes to several expectant mothers, and I was later totally amazed at their children’s capacity for sign. They truly were happier, and it’s so cool to communicate with children that are so young!

  10. Eric – I just wanted to say that a very thoughtful reader of yours emailed me to answer/respond to some of my questions and I can’t seem to locate the email sent but I wanted to acknowledge that person (who I assume reads your blog) and thank them for taking the time to be so thorough in their comments to me. I’m embarrassed that I can’t locate the email, but I did read it and it was very helpful.


  11. I’m curious what you would think of this product. I know the folks who developed it, and one of the hardest things to get is feedback from people who have first-hand parenting experience.

    The product uses lenticular printing (that ‘plastic’ printing technique that when you ’tilt’ it switches between two images) to show how the signs are executed.

    My wife liked the idea of these because they were an alternative to videos (spending time in front of the TV).

  12. It would help to tell you where to find the product!

    It’s SignTyme (


  13. Pingback :: - Jason Butler’s Home on the Web » Blog Archive » Linky Goodness - 11/7/05

    […] ks and post them here. That little hack should help my linky goodness timeliness quotient. Teaching Babies Sign Language Eric Meyer talks about the pro’s and con’s of […]

  14. Research on kids with autism has actually shown that, rather than delaying verbal behavior, signing faciliates speech. Be sure to pair your hand sign with a spoken one.

  15. I am a special education teacher and grandmother of an adorable little 18th month old grandson. He has been taught some sign language and is using it all the time. I am sure it has reduced frustration of both his caring parents and himself by his being able to sign that he wants ‘more’, ‘milk’ etc. However, I am getting concerned that he is approaching 18 months of age and has very few words in speaking vocabulary-maybe four words at this time. He consistently points to things, signs and and makes a whiny sound like ‘umgh’ He seems to understand many things, but does not even attempt to use verbal speech when prompted. I am concerned that his signing is easier and so he does not even attempt to talk. His mother reads to him and is quiet herself, but she does talk to him. Is this lack of verbal expression a cause for concern???????

  16. My friends children were over 5 years old before they talked, they were never taught in sign language and nor were the parents deaf. So I guess children develope at a different pace.

    My son is hearing and is taught sign language, as myself and my husband are deaf as well as our oldest son. BSL is the primary communication at home and I have had so called professionals on my back complaining about his lack of speech, as he is 2 1/2 years old, then one day a few weeks later he came out as a chatter box. He knows how to communicate with us, he knows he is understood and understands others, so why improvise on one method on the basis of using another to suit someone else who does not sign nor interacts with him on a daily basis.

    I can appreciate people being concerned due to the lack of speech progress, but once he has mastered the art of grammar in language via signing first, he will come out talking as if there is no tomorrow.

    Children do not sign at the expenses of other things, just as a child with english speaking father and a russian speaking mother. They adapt to speak both language with ease and suffer nothing for it.


  17. Hey, I’m the sister of the first commentor listed here. What he says is right. My entire family had to learn ESL at first (English Sign Language), and as I got older and had more exposure to other Deaf youngsters, my ESL changed to ASL. Needless to say, my family were rather left behind on that aspect. As for the others who asked if signing would neglect other things. It wouldn’t. I signed, AND had speech therapy nearly every day in school plus my mother took me to private speech lessons once a week for nearly 17 years. Even to this day, only my family and closest hearing friends can decipher what I’m saying if I didn’t sign. No one else can, and that’s really a sad waste of my parents’ money. Even deaf oralists have a hell of a time with it, disillusioned by their speech therapists’ claims of perfected speech. My vocabulary surpassed my classmates my entire life, from school to school, and that’s not even taking ASL into account. My parents didn’t believe that because I’m deaf, I was incapable in some way. Unfortunately, 99.9% of the rest of the world believes otherwise, and this is why deaf people have such a stigma glued on us since the dawn of time. I have three hearing children, and the 4th is deaf in one ear. They didn’t speak a valid word till well after one year old because they weren’t in school, and because both their father and I are deaf. Yeah, I’ve had so-called professionals hacking about how the children are so far behind in development that they needed therapy. Well… I stuck it to them! Now, the children have vocabulary surpassing their years, and my eldest daughter is next to an expert in ASL and my oldest son’s nearly there.

    The “theory” that signing supresses the spoken language is bull. Deaf people are deaf, and no amount of technology or medications can improve their speech to even near that of a hearing person nor fix their ears.

    Hearing children with deaf parents learn ASL first, but they also are sponges. They listen. They memorize the words they hear. Problem here is that they KNOW their parents are deaf, so what use is there for them to speak the words they learned? They merely bide their time until they go to school, or have a couple of kids to hang out often in the neighborhood, then suddenly you have a chatterbox and you wonder where that kid learned so much words from. Younger hearing children are a bit more difficult. They’re born to deaf parents, therefore they believe that everyone else is the same. So they point, tap shoulders, and tug on pants to get attention. They just need to be taught and reminded that there are many different kinds of people, including the hearing.

    Deaf children – beware of putting them into hearing school where they’re the only deaf student or there’s only one or two others. That is detrimental to their grades, fellowship practices, and confidence. It makes them feel like a freak, like they’re certainly not normal. Put them into schools that actually have an established deaf program, or research into state schools for the deaf. I’ve been to the Illinois School for the Deaf, and have not regretted it since.

    Also, beware of speech therapists who hold down or tie the children’s hands to force them to talk. Oh yeah, they do still exist nowadays, and I had a nasty run in with one for my oldest son’s speech practices. She was promptly fired the first day after I walked in on her doing that. Those kinds of people have the very least consideration for anyone who’s different. And, for you parents of deaf children, watch out for those evils and disregard anyone saying “your child won’t amount to much”. Another truckload of bull.

    If any of you thinks that signing is detrimental to speech, you’re wrong. Even die-hard deaf people make sounds and lip movement in accordance to each sign they use.

    Last note before I leave – feel sorry for the deaf oralists. They can’t even communicate with their fellow deaf people, and when they have deaf children, it’ll be worse. There’s NO communication BOTH ways with them. Strangers can’t understand them, and friends have a hard time. Don’t turn your children into one.

Add Your Thoughts

Meyerweb dot com reserves the right to edit or remove any comment, especially when abusive or irrelevant to the topic at hand.

HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strong> <pre class=""> <kbd>

if you’re satisfied with it.

Comment Preview