Scott Hanselman

Baby Sign Language - Update at 14 months

February 18, '07 Comments [24] Posted in Parenting | Z
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UPDATE: Check out http://www.babysignlanguage.com for more info on Babies and Sign Language!

Teaching our son Sign Language has been a dramatic success for us. He's 14 months old now and the last six weeks have been an explosion of communication. Two months ago he was just barely starting to use the sign for "more." Today, he knows at least 30 signs (says Mo, at least 40, says I) and is learning at least one new one a day.

Just yesterday Mo mentioned that he'd be pointing to a book and making a sign she didn't recognize. I said, show me...he'd been signing "pig" all day, a sign I'd taught him the week before, because he wanted a book about Pigs read to him.

As a new parent, I can't tell you how thrilling it is to connect with a baby, your baby, on a conceptual level...sounds silly to say, but Baby Sign Language can be about more than just "milk." We were reading "Goodnight Moon" just this evening, and my son signed "moon all done" when we got to the page where the moon was gone from the sky. That moment really sealed the deal for me. Sticking with Sign Language was the right thing for us to do.

It's not that much work to learn the signs. As you learn a few dozen, you'll see a pattern, and other signs will get easier to learn. We carry a picture dictionary around with us in the baby bag.

Sometimes folks see us sign to him in public and say "oh, is he deaf?" with a kind of worried face. We reply that we're teaching him Sign Language so we can see what's on his mind a year or two early.

There's lots of opinions about teaching kids sign language. Here's my reasoning.

  • I'm gaining at least a year of time communicating with my son. Not using sign language would mean that our communication would be limited to pointing and the occasional made up gesture.
  • Many families in America use some sign language like Milk and More and basically leave it at that. I say you're missing out on something amazing. Take it to the  next level.
    • Imagine taking your 1 year old to the zoo and having them sign "monkey sleeping" when you get the Gorilla House and the monkey's not around. Things like this happen ever day for us, and they are utterly magical.
  • Some folks believe that "Mommy knows what baby needs." I'm sure that's true, but Mommy also appreciates when baby says "apple" using sign, rather than simply throwing his banana at Mommy. Why not give him the tools to express himself?
  • Many temper tantrums are caused by frustration at not being understood. Sign language has given us a way to find out what he wants and what he needs. We give him 100% of what he needs, and probably 10% of what he wants. We haven't seen any temper tantrums at all caused by our son not being understood. (I checked that statement out with the wife ahead of time and she agreed.) He is eager to make himself understood and it's clear that he has fun signing.
  • ASL-based Signing qualifies as a foreign language in most colleges and more and more high schools. If you stick with signing, not only will you have an additional language between you, but you'll have given your child a language firmly based in kinesthetic learning.

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 son lit 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 and dog 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.

There's a great Dictionary of Baby Signs (ASL) here that uses Windows Media Player. I also highly recommend the Baby Signing Time Series of DVDs, particularly Volumes 1 and 2. They are the only videos that let the baby watch.

I don't know when he'll start talking. It doesn't really matter. I'm not really sure where he is "developmentally" or what a 14 month old is supposed to be doing at this point. I figure kids all even out by the time they're 18 years old anyway. But, while we look forward to him talking, be it at two years or four years old, I've already got a way to communicate with him. I can ask him what's on his mind and he'll tell me.

About Scott

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

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Sunday, February 18, 2007 7:15:58 AM UTC
Scott,

I love your technical posts. As a father I'm also a huge fan of your fatherly posts. We started signing with my third child and met with great success. We put a decent amount of effort into it - mostly because we had heard that signing was especially viable with boys. With our fourth child (Nora, now 22 months) we did it a bit less - but she still uses signs a bit even though she now says everything.

And yeah, there's NOTHING like really connecting with your child. It's so exhilarating to really catch glimpses of real personality, thought, intelligence, spirit, and charm behind their sweet little faces. What's sooo exciting about signs though (and even early language) is to see that your kids are really thinking and progressing under the covers - that they're getting it. And it really is a miracle - one to shout from the rooftops like you've done.
Sunday, February 18, 2007 8:18:57 AM UTC
We have has hughe success with signing also.
cra451
Sunday, February 18, 2007 12:46:07 PM UTC
Thanks for the great info and links. We are in kid planning mode at the moment <insert anxious mother-in-law nag here>, so it will be very useful in the year to come..

On a side note, perhaps he was not referring to the book with his Pig sign but rather wishing you a Happy Lunar New Year (today) and was smart enough to realize it's the year of the Pig :-)

Frank
Sunday, February 18, 2007 3:18:11 PM UTC
This completely mirrors the experience we had with our daughter: somewhere near Z's age, sign was her primary mode of communication, and she was able to acquire them very quickly. At two years now, of course, she speaks far more than she signs, but at his age it was the reverse.

One suggestion I would make is for people to simply make up a sign if you don't know it and don't have the book handy. As long as you continue to use the same one after that, it's no problem. Of course, using the "standard" one is superior, as it ensures you won't pick one sign while your wife picks another. But something is better than nothing.

We too met some resistance, mostly from my wife's parents. "Won't this make it harder for her to learn to talk?" I always replied by pointing out that every child uses sign language - lifting their arms to indicate "pick me up", waving "bye bye", and a bunch of others that we just take for granted. Using ASL is just extending that very natural form of communication.

BTW, year two is even more fun, if you can believe it. :)
Sunday, February 18, 2007 3:43:04 PM UTC
It would be nice to see two one year old babies to "talk" in sign language to each other ;)
Juozas
Sunday, February 18, 2007 5:00:44 PM UTC
Great post, Scott. I've been Tivo'ing "Signing Time". I'm not sure who enjoys it more, me, or my kids. Also, as Z gets older, I'd encourage you to examine home schooling. I can't begin to tell you how positively it has affected my family. Truly the best decision we've ever made. It might sound crazy, but seriously, check it out.
Monday, February 19, 2007 2:49:43 AM UTC
I'm glad that you're having so much success with the signing, Scott. Signing has been wonderful with my two boys (currently 4-1/2 and 2 years old) and allowed me to communicate with them 1 to 1-1/2 years earlier than I would have been able to otherwise. As you experienced with Z, babies quickly move from "need" signs ("more", "change", "milk", "eat") to "interest" signs ("read book", "see duck", "more giraffe"). With respect to picking up verbal language, signing is a huge benefit as they've had a good year-long head start on grammar. They jump quickly from verbally saying "Pig, pig" to "Uh-oh, pig fall down. Help." The signing also helps enormously when they start to talk as a child's first attempt at speech can be difficult to interpret, even as a parent. So having sign cues to indicate what they're actually trying to say is a huge benefit. To Juozas, yes, I have seen two young babies signing to each other. It's very cool. To Craig, I would have to agree - it only gets better. My 4-1/2 year old still signs occasionally and is an excellent reference if I forget a sign myself. :)
Monday, February 19, 2007 8:33:20 AM UTC
I'd love to see a video post of him signing. I have a three year old, and a nearly five month old, and on the cbeebies channel (www.cbeebies.com) here in the UK there is a show called 'Something Special'. I think it's aimed at / about children with special needs, but it's on at 5pm, and the presenter, Justin Fletcher, signs all that he is saying. Even when he does his 'Mr Tumble' character doing a bit of slapstick. He even has an IMDB entry at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0462138/

The sign language they use is called Makaton, and my three year old finds it entertaining to mimic some of the signs. He's a little chatterbox, and has no trouble communicating his wants or needs, and even attempts big words like 'predictable'. I broke that one down and re-built it up as 'table', 'dictable' and 'predictable', and he was saying it in seconds. It's a shame I didn't have the impetus to baby-sign with him.

I'm definitely going to give it a try with my 4 1/2 month old.

Video please if you get chance.

Thanks.
cometbill
Monday, February 19, 2007 12:51:25 PM UTC
We signed a fair bit with our son. He is now five and still likes to use signs sometimes (but he can talk a blue streak when he wants too... and comminucates very well).

Our daughter is 2. We only did the "milk", "more" thing with her. It was a mistake. She knows about 5 signs now. And still really isn't speaking. She understands lots of things, and can comminicate to you what she wants, but mostly via the "point and grunt" method (ok, not really grunting, but you know what I mean).

I think I'll check out some of your references and start the sign language with my daughter again.
Monday, February 19, 2007 12:53:27 PM UTC
I must say I’m a bit skeptical here.. My son knew somewhere around 100 speaking words at the age of 14 months, so I really have great trouble seeing that "I'm gaining at least a year". By now he is soon 19 months and knows well over 300 (counted) words, so I think it's really more to what you put in, and how you do it, rather than being so fascinated over and stuck to one technique.

Scott, sometimes you are a bit... how should I put it... besserwisser like. You only have one son (yet), yet you sound like the father of 600.

Daniel
Monday, February 19, 2007 1:22:48 PM UTC
>It would be nice to see two one year old babies to "talk" in sign language to each other ;)

groovy idea.
top post scott. if you are a besserwisser... keep it up! it's working!
Monday, February 19, 2007 2:05:32 PM UTC
I think it is great you are doing this, as for the extra time, I just don't see it. Both of my kids were quite vocal by 18 months, the one thing we never did was "baby talk" with them. we spoke to them in regular english.
My youngest son was walking by 9 months and speaking way too much by 12 months, but he has a scary brain. When he was three he announced to us that he could read, we did not believe him and said go get some books and read them to us, which he did. The only thing we can figure is that he taught himself to read at my parents house by watching TV with the CC on. My dad is hard of hearing and they keep it on.

hmmmm, maybe we should all used CC for the kids....
Horace West
Monday, February 19, 2007 2:30:19 PM UTC
This is amazing. I am disappointed my wife and I never went furhter than toying with the idea of teaching my daughter sign language. She is 2 1/2 now and we are seeing this kind behaviour in her vocabulary when she tries to describe concepts or things that she has no lexical equivlanet for. It is fascinating from a linguistic / mental development stand point and just so darn cute from a prent's view. It is amazing how she rapidly assimilates new terms into her vocabulary and uses them in logically correct ways that communicate her thoughts precisely. We then have to work with her to learn the new word or how to phrase it correctly within the grammar and syntax of the language. I am curious how the use of sign language will alter this stage in Z's spoken language development.

Love the posts both family and technical.
Monday, February 19, 2007 3:09:06 PM UTC
My wife and I had great success with the following title "Sign With Your Baby: How to Communicate With Infants Before They Can Speak" by Joseph Garcia. It worked very well as a how-to. He was picking it up by 9 months, even though we started a month or so earlier. Getting kids to understand conceptually mapping a sign to an object is great, even better with an action (something non-tangible), like "I want to go for a walk..."

Warning: Teaching them language, abstract concepts, and such will at an early stage gets you a 3 year old that can drive around on your Windows 2003 Server (my home box) better than some of your corporate users (I know). I have to completely watch what he's doing or I will be short an item on the desktop! I do believe signing has something to do with that (beyond eye-hand coordination, etc).

Mark


Mark Deason
Monday, February 19, 2007 4:40:51 PM UTC
Chad, we've been tivo'ing the signing time as well. Alex and Leah are my son Cameron's best friends. He'll be walking/talking/playing and when the intro for signing time comes on, he freezes, and will sit there fro the full 30 minutes.

Like Scott, we've seen amazing results from Cameron (16 months old). His first sign was apple (bent finger to cheek) and hasn't stopped since. it seems that he amazes us with a new sign a day. His favorite sign by far is eat. The sign is to basically put your first two fingers and thumb together, and then poke at your mouth. To make this point, if Cameron really wants something, he does it harder and faster.

I'm really glad Jamie started signing with Cameron. I get the benefits of learning the signs with Cameron. In fact, I think he knows more signs than I.

Last night he started signing Orange, which is really cute.

Great post Scott.
Monday, February 19, 2007 4:58:05 PM UTC
Scott, I love the concept (and practise) that you can teach someone so young to talk so much so I mentioned it to my girlfriend who is a child psychiatrist. She also thinks it’s quite interesting but notes that the first three years in a child’s development are when they learn non-verbal communication. She cautions that, whilst there is no medical evidence one way or the other, the possibility exists they may end up exhibiting some symptoms usually associated with autistic spectrum disorders.

James.
Monday, February 19, 2007 6:23:12 PM UTC
Daniel - I'm not sure that besserwisser is the right word, but I understand where you're coming from. Question: You're saying that your 14 month old "understood" 100 words or could speak 100 words?

Of course we speak to our son, we speak and sign simultaneously. I don't know the signs for "take this to mommy then close the gate" but when I say it, the baby does it, so sure, he understands WAY more language than signs. It's the *feedback* where he "talks" back that makes this so powerful. Yes, IMHO. :)
Scott Hanselman
Monday, February 19, 2007 6:26:54 PM UTC
BTW - I was teasing my questioning your use of besserwisser...kinda makes your point, eh? ;)
Scott Hanselman
Tuesday, February 20, 2007 3:51:35 AM UTC
Wow! Thank you so much for posting this about baby signs! It is very important for parents to see that you almost gave up, but didn't and look what the result is! I have a site at http://www.babies-and-sign-language.com Please stop by and share any tips or even your testimonial, which I'd be honored to put on the new site. Thanks again and please, more updates! Congrats! :-)
Tuesday, February 20, 2007 4:46:32 AM UTC
It's always fun to read about people's experiences with sign language. We've been in the industry for years now and it's always a joy to hear how kids respond to sign language. Thanks for making me smile!

Chris
Wednesday, February 21, 2007 1:09:55 AM UTC
As proud parents of two, my wife and I HIGHLY recommend signing for your newborn children. Both of our boys picked up signing for milk, done, more, hurt tummy, and other various phrases (too many to list here) before they ever started speaking. Of course, having a wife who majored in Deaf Education was a plus - but it was exciting to watch them pick up this phonemenal form of communication soo quickly. Awesome post - brings perspective into what really matters in our lives - our family!
Wednesday, February 21, 2007 5:05:21 AM UTC
Well, while I'm estatic that people are discovering signing as a means for communicating with your child, you have to set reasonable expectations. Many Deaf people object absolutely to calling Baby Signs "ASL", of course, Scott does a good job here of noting it as "ASL-based".

The difficulty here with teaching your baby signs, is that while they will pick up signs, typically the parental grammatical expression will be insufficient. As noted above, Scott mentioned that he doesn't know the signs for "take this to mommy then close the gate", but not only that, he likely doesn't understand the correct grammatical usage involved.

Yes, they will likely teach you some grammar while you're learning, but remember that you're learning sign language as a second language, and typically as an adult, you will not pick up sign language either perfectly, or accurately. Your child will pick up your imperfect usage, and if they continue to sign until later ages without exposure to real signing Deaf people, then his grammar will be insufficient, his vocabulary dimunitive (eventually your child will easily exceed any ability that you have to absorb new signs) and his knowledge of the language, and more importantly the Deaf culture would be insufficient to meet the reasons why ASL is allowed as a foreign language in colleges. The original requirement was that the language had to be not only a language, but a new culture. If your child knows sign, but not about the Deaf culture, then that really does not accomplish the same thing.

Now, all of the points as to why Scott is doing this are very excellent reasons, and they are true reasons. You can communicate with your child earlier, and they will have much less of a chance to become frustrated from not being able to express themselves. Only the last reason is a little dubious. ;) I met someone who was teaching her child Baby Signs, and she said now that he has started talking, he does not sign as much. Unless sign is really the only way you communicate with him, then he will eventually catch on that you do not speak sign language as well as he does, and he will begin to default to spoken English just so you can understand him.

So, don't let this discourage you, there is still such an incredible benefit from doing this! Just don't think that you're necessarily preparing your child to participate in the Deaf culture, unless you're part of the Deaf culture yourself.
Cassy
Wednesday, February 21, 2007 10:25:25 AM UTC
Hi Scott.
First of all : Thanks a bunch for your blog, I really enjoy it. Secondly: besserwisser is not the right word, so you’re absolutely right when correcting that…  , it’s because I lack so many words in (non-technical) English.

One time when my wife’s cousin came to visit us with her daughter (the cousin’s daughter was 21 months and our son was 8 months if I remember it correctly), she picked up a children's picture book that we had received from a friend. I was stunned when the daughter knew 100 % of the many items in the book (http://www.amazon.com/First-Word-Book-Angela-Wilkes/dp/1879431211) . It seemed to me as completely impossible that our son could go from where he was then to that in a year! The cousin told us that they had been reading all sorts of books to their daughter since very early. After that (a least a bit) shocking experience I started to read to our son In a bit more organized way (that book and others), and since I could tell that he enjoyed it (but nowhere near recognizing nor saying any of the items in the book) I kept on going. After a few weeks (of reading in the evening that is) I could get him to point at different items, and after a few more weeks words started to come out. I guess it’s the same with sign language (and in fact; as with all things in life), once you get the hang of it, once the first barrier is passed things go fast (just think of learning how to program computers). When he was 15 months he knew almost every item in the book (lacking only a few boring ones). It’s truly a privilege to experience such a development with your own child, and I’m glad you are experiencing the same with Z.
Daniel
Sunday, March 04, 2007 10:48:58 PM UTC
Scott, thank you for the nod to Baby Signing Time. We also have a 13 DVD series "Signing Time" which can be seen on many public television stations around the country. As a mother of a deaf child and as the co-creator of Signing Time, I LOVE that so many families are using sign language to communicate with their hearing children. My original hope was to create a signing community in our hearing community so that Leah would not be so isolated simply because she is deaf an children around her felt awkward approaching her when they knew no signs. So I applaud every family's efforts in learning sign!

You may also be aware that sign language was my daughter Lucy's first successful way of communicating as well. Lucy has spina bifida and cerebral palsy and was diagnosed mentally retarded at age 2. Her neurologist did not expect her to develop speech and because of her physical disabilities, he felt she would never sign. Signing was difficult for her to develop, but speech was much MORE difficult. I am happy to report Lucy has proved him wrong and speaks and signs beautifully. She is 6 years old now and is in a mainstream first grade classroom.

It is interesting to me how many people confuse communication and speech. You are right on, your child is communicating earlier and you are experiencing the benefits. Speech is a skill that children learn; it is one way to communicate. All children begin communicating through signs. They wave "bye-bye" they raise their arms to be picked up. Those signs are typically celebrated by their parents, not ignored because of some ridiculous fear that your child might never say the words "bye-bye" or eventually ask to be picked up. :-)

www.signingtime.com
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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.