Scott Hanselman

Baby Sign Language 2.0

September 16, '08 Comments [27] Posted in Musings
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UPDATE: Check out http://www.babysignlanguage.com for more info on Babies and Sign Language!

The "2.0" in the post title there refers to Baby #2 who is pushing 9 months now. Insert gratuitous baby footage here (It's all good, but the best bit is just after 1:23):

He's a clever little dude, I like to think. One of the things that we did with Baby #1 (now Toddler of Pure Evil©) was that we taught him Baby Sign Language. I LOVE talking to parents about the benefits of teaching their kids a foreign language and American Sign Language is a full fledged foreign language. It just happens to be one that babies can learn before they can speak.

Teaching the first boy Sign was a radical success for our little family, so we're starting it up with 2.0. We're teaching him American Sign Language.

When?

How much earlier? Anywhere from 6 months old to one year, a baby can clearly make their intent known with Sign. Now, I'm not talking about trying to push a baby to be "gifted" or to get a baby to do anything that isn't relaxed and natural. I'm not promoting trying to teach 2 year olds to take college entrance exams.

Why?

What I am a huge fan of is taking the communication you've already got with your baby* and elevating the grunts and points that are primitive, invented signs, and replacing them with a formalized system of signs that have been used for years by deaf folks.

*(in the range between 6 months and whenever they start really talking...between 18 mos and 2 years or whatever)

With Baby Sign Language you start by introducing "Needs-Based" Signs like Food, Milk, Mommy and start using them all the time. Every time you say food out loud, you also sign food. Then you start introducing repetitive action signs. Those are signs for stuff that happen all the time like Sleep or seeing Grandpa.

What a Weird Country

A lot of folks I meet while (or from) overseas think this is insane. A German woman told me once "I know exactly what my baby wants." And that's cool. However, sometimes it's nice to hear directly from the child.

The idea is that the main reason babies cry is that their needs aren't being met. I'm hungry. I'm tired. I want that ball. We spend two years or more with these babies pointing and grunting at stuff trying to get their point across.

Also, "I'm hungry" is pretty vague. It's a joy to see a 14 month old sign "Want Grapes" then calm down when they get exactly what they want. It might sound weird, but it can't hurt to try! It's becoming more and more popular in the States and it's because it works and it enhances my relationship with my kids very early on.

How Much Sign Can They Learn?

It's a complete language and many successful Deaf folks would say "all of it." They'll learn as much as you can throw at them. However, I suggest picking 3-5 signs from about 6 months old until they've mastered them. Then, start adding a sign a week. Then a sign a day. Then, once you realize your child is smarter quicker to absorb then you are, they're probably going to start speaking soon anyway.

Boy #1 ended up with something like 80 signs (lots of Animals) and then just started talking one day.

Won't It Slow Their Development?

In my experience, nope. If anything, it gives them a nice little bump ahead, but that's not the point of doing it. Our two year old is speaking nicely and has happily forgotten his signs as soon as he figured it that speaking was easier for him. Now, fast forward a bit, he's re-learning it and signing (and speaking) to his little brother.

Check out my (now series of) posts on Baby Sign Language:

I highly recommend the Baby Signing Time DVDs and CDs. Now, forgive me as I compile a few small summaries from those previous posts:

What do you need to do to start signing?

  • Check your local community center. They often offer Baby Sign Language classes. We took classes before Z was born, and when he was 6 months old.
  • If Baby Sign Language is unusual or unused in your country, either find some Deaf Folks and learn your country's specific Sign Language, or use ASL (American Sign Language). The trick is to be consistent and have an illustrated dictionary to refer to.
  • Stick with it. Don't give up. We started when he was six months old and signed every day without a single clear response until he was a year old. We nearly quit a dozen times before that.
    • Then one day he signed "light" as clear as day in his bedroom. We turned on the light and our sonlit up with a small as wide as his face. That's when we connected with him. I'm not talking about the standard Mom/Dad/Baby we-love-you connection. I'm talking about the baby's opinion matters kind of connection.
  • Get picture books, lots of them, and learn the signs for the animals. I highly recommend the Priddy Books series of books for baby.
    • Learn the signs for animals and common objects and use them every time you see one out in the world. We went for a walk on the Portland Waterfront today and our son was signing bird anddog and plane and sharing those discoveries with us. It's great when he sees something interesting and points at it, but it's something different when he signs about something we didn't see.
  • Pay Attention and prepare for the unexpected.
    • Example: The baby was frantically signing ball recently, gesturing wildly at a dog. We tried to correct him..."No no sweetie, that's a dog, not a ball." The dog lifted it's head and we saw that the dog was in fact playing with a ball that we hadn't seen.

Testimonials

Many of my friends and family have taught their kids sign. For many, including all the non-Americans, they were teased by family and friends - especially concerned mother's-in-law. But they stuck with it. My friend Daniel "Kzu" Cazzulino had a great experience with Baby Sign Language in Argentina:

Just like Scott felt, it's not just a matter of teaching her something to make her "smarter" early on. There's a new kind of connection that you can make with your baby. Aylen's face shines when she sees that we can listen to her needs and help her. She no longer cries when she's hungry or thirsty, or when she wants to take a bath. That's huge."

Craig Andera is also huge Baby Signing Fan. He had to have patience early on though:

Just like Scott, it was initially like signing to a wall. She didn't seem to care, and she certainly didn't sign back. But I knew from my brother that it was just a matter of time, and sure enough, at about eight months, Ellen was able to mime the sign back to us. It's pretty amazing to get any communication whatsoever (other than smiling and crying) from an eight-month-old.

It's moving slowly, but our 9 month old (after flat ignoring our signs and smiling for the last 3 months straight) now asks for More Food quite clearly. I look forward to the next year that I get to "talk" to him as I patiently wait for him to actually start talking.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008 8:00:50 AM UTC
I didn't quite follow the repeated point about non-Americans here. What is it you're saying about Americans being more tolerant of sign language, is there some kind of history of babies using over there?
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 8:24:12 AM UTC
I didn't think I repeated it too much, sorry. The point is that the concept of teaching ASL to babies is, in my experience, a uniquely American (perhaps North American thing). I've spoken to folks from ALL over about this topic and found that most Europeans, for example, think that teaching Sign to infants is a very Odd Thing To Do.

It started in the US in the early-to-mid 80s and has been growing here ever since. It's VERY popular here.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 8:40:33 AM UTC
Just chiming in from New Zealand. Our second daughter was taught some signs at her daycare, starting from the age of about 9 months or so.

The daycare hadn't told us - we noticed because we already knew some of the sign language due to a niece with speech difficulties learning it a few years prior.

I'd always thought it was a great thing for kids like that (i.e. older kids with speech problems), but for babies? A load of old hippie nonsense!

I have now completely reversed my opinion! Baby sign language is nothing short of incredible!

Anyone who has babies should absolutely give this a go.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 9:07:31 AM UTC
Thanks for this, we will definitely try this with our youngest (10 months) our oldest might also pick it up a bit (2 year) as he's not yet speaking to much. We also have a multi language environment at home (Dutch and Norwegian) and I also like to get English in there as soon as possible. I did hear about using signing before, but that was quite some time ago and I completely forgot about it again.

Its cool to see your baby (kid) trying to communicate with you even without a sign language they do get their thoughts across, I do have to say that now that our oldest gets older there where times that he got very frustrated that we didn't understand what he wanted to say. Would have been so cool if he was able to sign it.

I understood that raising multi language might slow down the actual usage of the language because he needs to figure out which words to use, i.e. what language to speak, but they understand it all. I understand you haven't noticed that they are later with talking than other around the same age? I am not worried about this as I know he understands it all, just curious.

-Mark
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 9:19:47 AM UTC
I don't have any experience with the Baby Signing Time DVDs, but we bought the first six of the regular Signing Time DVDs and had great success with both of our kids. My now five-year-old son learned to speak much earlier than his peers and I attribute that to how well he could communicate with signing by the time he figured out how to speak.

My three-year-old daughter didn't get as much exposure to the signing as my son because we accidentally left all of the DVDs on a plane (along with all of our other "kid" DVDs; that was a sad day), but since we did as much as we could on our own, she still uses signs on a daily basis, even though she doesn't need to any more.

Highly recommended.

I live in Thailand now, and I can back up what you said about non-Americans thinking that sign language is strange. Our friends here, Thai or otherwise, who have asked about why our kids speak so well, have almost all reacted "interestingly" to our explanation about sign language.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 9:24:51 AM UTC
In the UK we're luck enough to have Something Special on the BBC childrens channel - it does a great job of teaching Makaton signs, although for the last 6 months we've had to watch closely in case our son picks up signs we don't know (leading to inevitable frustration and tantrums).

He's 23 months now and while he's still not talking very well yet he can express himself incredibly well using signs - quite often with a decent sentence structure and grammar. I think it's definitely becoming more common over here, although if people don't have a toddler of their own they find it a little odd.
Matt Williams
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 9:57:56 AM UTC
I and my husband wanted to teach our baby sign language. I was quite busy those days, and I couldn't concentrate to learn and add one more issue to our rutine. And, I couldn't be sure about cost (effort)/performance ratio. At the time you posted your previous post on this subject, I read comments of people who think could communicate enough without ASL. Our toddler is 19 months old now, and here is my more clear opinion on this subject, more research needed :)

I think most people is concerned that if it would slow down the speed of learning speaking. Babies will be encouraged for ASL, and communication needs is a great motivation for speaking. Our toddler was not really interested in communicating much until he managed to walk (about 12 months). Yes, we could understand if he was hungry, or tired, or afraid from his attitude and body language, clearly. And I am not sure if he would be willing to sign more than that, even if he could, because he was not interested. As soon as he managed to walk, he started talking. He could speak 50 words clearly when he was 15 months, and could understand almost everything we were telling to him. He is speaking with 2 words slow sentences with a great vocabulary now in Turkish (19 months), and many words in Russian (his nanny speaks Russian). He can answer questions. If you promise something for later, he asks for it when the time comes. It is not possible to know if he could manage to learn to this level if he could solve his early communication problems with ASL. You can not test both ways, on very same child. I think it is best to teach more than one speaking language to a baby, even if it is slower than teaching only one language. However, I am not sure ASL would help that, it seems to me as it requires different processes in brain.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 10:11:21 AM UTC
I'm glad your son has learned so much sign. We haven't been really focusing on sign as much as speaking these days. Every now and then our boy will communicate in sign (Mommy/Daddy/Baby/eat/tired stuff). But now we know his beeps and burps to know what he's trying to say without actively looking. We didn't find a great deal of stuff in France that teaches babies french sign. And I've been, reluctantly, using the Baby Einsteins sign language DVD. Not that its bad, but it uses ASL, which limits its usefulness to just our family.

He has started counting in English and French, so we've been focusing on getting his understanding of numbers down.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 10:27:05 AM UTC
Vista is suffering from some setbacks early in her life. Mommy and I had a blood incompatiblity and Vista is currently alergic to milk and beef products (which makes shopping really fun). She's 16 months now and just starting to walk. She's a slow starter. We were told early on that she might have a mild case of CP, but that she might "grow out of it" by the time she's 3 or 4 and be seemingly perfectly normal (I hate that comparision).

We picked up the Baby Signing DVDs and she instantly fell in love with them. We find them far superior over *any* baby teaching materials. I picked up some of the Baby Einstein DVDs and they pale in comparison, being more about Disney product advertising and displaying credit screens about who made the video rather than the actual content.

When Vista wants to watch the show she signs signing time (by slapping her wrist) and handing me the remote. When it comes on, she's engaged and I mean engaged. She watches TreeHouse TV (a toddler station up here) which has things like the wiggles, Franklin, Dora, etc. but she's never as engaged as she is with Baby Signing Time. She'll sit there and literally watch the entire thing through without looking away. She dances at the songs and doesn't get distracted from it, even when the dogs bark.

The results are pretty satisfying. She can sign dad, eat, puppy, frog, sleep, and about a dozen others. Now she's picking up the more complicated signs and will tell us when she's hurt (teething) or wants something (food, a bottle, etc.). This is a huge advantage as we know what she wants rather than us guessing it.

It's made our lives much simpler and offsets the other complications we have. I swear by Baby Signing time and their product and recommend it to anyone.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 11:21:58 AM UTC
Very cool. If I ever have kids, I do plan to teach them sign language as well -- partly because they can do it younger and partly because I can't hear very well so it will be easier for them to talk to me, period.

I must admit, when I met you at CodeMash back in January, I was a little surprised when you dropped into sign as soon as you realized I was deaf -- that's not an experience I get very often, but it was appreciated even though I'm not that strong in it myself. :)
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 12:19:06 PM UTC
Thanks for this post. We're just getting into the second trimester, and there are a million things to think about for the rapidly approaching future. We bid on a baby signing DVD set at a charity auction, but we didn't win. We'll have to put this on our registry (who needs another pink or blue onesie, anyway?).

It's critical that we parents know how long it takes for babies to pick it up and sign back -- thanks for the reassurance. I'd imagine that once you're used to the basic signs it becomes second nature to use them casually.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 12:20:24 PM UTC
We taught signs to our daughter in a multi-lingual household (Chinese and English), and relative to her peers (and there were a lot of them - I think someone must have slipped fertility drugs in the water around then), she showed no delay. Of course there's no control group, but we always felt that having one sign tie the same word in two languages together was helpful.

Our second is six months old now, and we'll definitely be starting the signs with her any day. As far as effort/reward goes, if you talk to your baby - and one would hope you do - then it's not any extra effort, except perhaps to remember to do it. And maybe ten minutes total over the course of six months in looking up signs on the internet.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 12:48:34 PM UTC
My wife and I started with our daughter early (Here's a few of her at 9-12 months), combining signs that were useful for us, useful for her, and things that she was interested in into a progression of about 75 signs that she used. She's just shy of two now and she is talking up a storm, but she still uses several signs on a regular basis, especially for emphasis (even if she is speaking the word, she'll still sign it)

- PLEASE!!!
- Thank you
- Yes
- Eat
- Milk (We're weening right now, so we see and here this one a lot).
- Dog (she love's the neighborhood mutts)

and several others. We whole-heartedly believe that sign language helped in her early language and communication development, not to mention helping her to overcome her frustrations by giving her the tools she needed to tell us what she needed and wanted to be happy baby.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 1:00:25 PM UTC
We recently adopted a 5 year old boy from China. Since our daughter is deaf, we are used to sign in combination with speech. The sign language helped our new son enormously to establish some communication. The first few weeks he would only use sign language, after that he added the words too. Apparently Sign Language is very intuitive to older children too. We would not have had such good communications in the beginning without it.
Richard de Zwart
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 1:34:08 PM UTC
"Full-fleged foreign language"? Don't tell the United States deaf community that. :-)
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 2:13:11 PM UTC
We never attempted to teach our children baby sign, but I can definitely attest to how important it is to learn about how language develops in children and what you can do to assist with this process. We were lucky enough to take part in an special speech therapy programme for both of our daughters. The programme involved 2 speech therapists visiting our house and spending some time with our children when they were between 6 and 9 months old.

The biggest benefit of this programme was that they gave us lots of really good information about practical steps we could take to encourage and stimulate their language development. We're reaping the benefits of this particularly with our second daughter. She had a vocabulary of about 50 words by 16 months, and now at 20 months old she is stringing together 5 word sentences.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 2:25:02 PM UTC
Scott, we taught our child sign language. It really helps keep the frustration level down on their end. Too many times we assume one thing is wrong with them when it is something entirely different. I think teaching young ones sign language is awesome. It is because of my wife that we did it and I'm very glad we did.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 2:32:57 PM UTC
I was discussing this a couple weeks back with someone who mentioned how much you talk about this :D

We tried to teach my first child to sign, and she still does use the few signs she did learn. She always says "more car, more car, more car?" at red lights while signing for more... We actually started a little bit late too, but the problem we ran into was that our little girl really likes to talk. As in, she had 20 words down by the time she was one year, and by 18 months was already starting to use sentences like 'I'm hungry, let's have crackers.' and somewhere I think I have her singing and doing the actions to 'Itsy Bitsy Spider' at 16 months. During that insane learning curve, we tried to teach her sign language, but we ended up giving up because she would just start saying the word long before she'd start signing it.

This all sounds like heaven, and it was great when she was in good spirits. However, when she got frustrated, suddenly her body was too busy with other things to be able to use the fine motor control for speech, and any parent can tell you what happens when they're upset and really have something to say :D I find that from my interactions with other children who sign, that sometimes when they're upset is the best time because even if they're so busy crying, they can always sign for their Daddy or Mommy.

We're on to our second now, and he's just 5 months and I guarantee that we'll be teaching him some signs (I'm not entirely sure my wife isn't already). Though since he's come the little lady has taken a small downturn in her language (thought it's coming back, she's starting to correct us on annunciation). I can't wait to be teaching another little one how to communicate.

This brings me to my question... how does one sign ALT.Net?
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 4:41:09 PM UTC
With our first daughter we started to teach her sign language, but she had already started talking. Saying "Mik" when she wanted milk and so forth. We found that when we started teaching her sign language, she picked it up quickly, but stopped using her words. So we stopped with the signing and encouraged her to talk more. We may try sign language again with our second one.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 5:50:51 PM UTC
Damla - I think if your child is MORE interested in talking and speaks early, as your son did, then that's great! Probably Sign wasn't for him, as he was focused on Russian and Turkish already? Every child is different.

David Edmiston - :)

Ruby Kane - Yes, you might sign for 2, 3 or 6 months with NOTHING in return. Then, one day, it'll POP. And they'll explode with signs. You'll forget all about the previous months of "wasted" signs and realize they were absorbing it all. No sign is wasted, but the patience and "sticktoitiveness" that is required IS large.

Peter Richie - Why not? It is taught as a formal foreign language and High School students (and deaf ones also) get Foreign Language credit for it when moving into college.

Cacharbe - Wow, great pictures of your baby signing!. Can I update the post and include one?
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 9:17:30 PM UTC
It's an absolute joy to be able to communicate with my 18-month-old son, and I have you to thank. I first read about Baby Signing Time here on your blog.

So, thanks!
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 10:15:37 PM UTC
I agree that sign language is an invaluable tool. As mentioned many times, it saves much frustration from the child's side as they can get their point across much sooner.
My wife knew some sign already, so we decided to start teaching our daughter from around 8 months (IIRC). We weren't too persistent with it but she ended up learning a good number of signs, and could get the point across when she was thirsty/hungry/etc.

Mark Nijhof - My daughter was exposed to sign + 2 languages too. My wife and I spoke only Norwegian to her, and only English to eachother. That has seemed to work quite well. She used to use the sign and the Norwegian word. She now speaks mostly Norwegian (almost 2 years old), but her grasp of English is amazing. We'll be talking with some adults about something, and she'll chime in with something related to what we're talking about.

If you're going to have a baby, I recommend teaching them baby sign language.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008 9:18:01 PM UTC
I was hoping you would continue down this path with 2.0! Great to hear you're working with him on it!

John Baughman
Sunday, September 21, 2008 4:20:53 AM UTC
We used sing language with our little guy, the first sign we taught him was more and he started saying it at the same time. We continued to teaching him signs. We taught him about 10 signs, some of which he still uses. The biggest problem is once he started speaking we stopped using the signs as much. Though even now, a couple of months past 2 years old he still signs please when ever he says it. Now we can't stop him from talking, I credit the sign language for some of that.

I'm hoping that we can keep it up better with our second, due in February, I'm hoping that our first will help teach the new one. I find these updates very interesting and encouraging thanks.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 1:09:25 PM UTC
My wife and I have been signing with my son since he was 5 1/2 months old. It has been great! We started off slow, with just a few signs, more, milk, all done, play, and no. He understood the signs quickly but he couldn’t communicate them back to us. Now he knows all these signs and more and communicates most of them back to us (he is 10 1/2 months now).

As a parent, we all want the BEST for our children but it takes more than money, it takes time, love and involvement with your child. My wife and I are big proponents of parent driven learning! It is our belief that parents are the driving force behind a child’s education; the key is involvement and time. We are teaching our son Sign Language and speaking English and Spanish to him. Our goal is for him to be able to sign, and speak at least two languages.

I'm happy to see parents becoming more involved with their kid’s education. Thanks for taking the time to share with other parents! What a great gift!
Wednesday, September 24, 2008 3:16:06 PM UTC
I'm from Iceland (Europe) I have a five year old daughter. We started teaching her to sign when she was 9 months old. It was, like you say, very rewarding to be able to communicate (not just anticipate) with her. It most certainly did not slow her talking ability - she started talking very early without any problems. Her daycare also teaches the children to sign so she never really forgot what she learned those years ago. I cannot recommend this enough, especially for those months where they can sign but cannot talk.
Saturday, November 08, 2008 4:47:31 AM UTC
my oldest son is 24 . my grandson is 17 months old and his pediatrician has recommended signing for him. he has picked up the sign for "more" but personally i think it's a lack on the parents part. my 3 children (especially my daughter) all were verbal and actually saying real words by 6 months old. i never talked baby talk to them and was with them all the time. i was lucky in having that luxury, i know. we waited 7 years to have our first so maybe being older (29)(36) helped that. all of you embracing sign language because your babies don't talk to me is a slap in the face to REAL deaf people. would you all be so happy if your child was really deaf??? be with your children and actually talk to them, you'd be surprised at the results.
marina
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.