Scott Hanselman

Baby Sign Language

November 22, 2006 Comment on this post [24] Posted in Musings | Parenting | Z
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Z and the Giant DogZ's fast approaching his first birthday (can you believe it?) and he's really started letting us know that he's in there. There's a real little person in there who's not just hanging out and pooping.

We've been teaching Z American Sign Language (ASL) since he was about 4 months old. I say "teaching" loosely, because we've just used it every time we talk to him, and figure he'll get the just sooner or later.

Mo and I have both taken ASL at the local community college from a non-verbal deaf instructor and we've taken Z to formal Baby Sign Language classes that use ASL (and as an aside, have a specific respect for the deaf community and don't 'invent' signs) as the source of signs.

We started getting discouraged around his 8 month birthday as it just didn't seem like he was signing back. It was pretty clear he "got" what we were saying, but he just didn't reciprocate.

Then, he started showing intense interest in turning on and off lights. So, we showed him the sign for light, which is a downward turned hand with straight, splayed fingers representing the light rays. Sounds complex, but it's pretty obvious when you see it. Anyway, he immediately started using this sign. He just got it. He started signing light frantically one day, and my wife couldn't figure out why; then she realized she was buying a bulb in the light section of Home Depot and was surrounded by chandeliers.

Ceiling fans were next and Z happily announced their arrival with the sign for fan. It seemed he was getting the concrete signs for things, but not the abstract concepts like "more."

Just after Z started walking, he started signing things like "more" when he wanted more food. At this point, it's getting really exciting.

I truly believe that Sign Language is encouraging Z to communicate earlier. I don't keep track of other kids' accomplishments at this age or that, so I have nothing to measure against (nor am I interested) but I feel like I haven't had to wait long to connect with Z. Just a month later, we "talk" about such thrilling escapades as "the Man in the Boat" and "the Banana in your Hair" as well as "the Giant Dog" as seen in the picture at the upper right.

He's also starting to attempt to speak the word while he signs it, like "lala" while signing "Light." The amount that he understands verbally, even at under a year old, is amazing to me. I don't know what I expected, nor again, what other kids do, but tonight I said "ok, let's go take a bath!" and he ran from he kitchen to the stairs, climbed the stairs by himself and ran into the bathroom and tried to turn on the water. That's crazy to me that babies can hold a thought that long. Hell, I can't hold a thought that long.

This tiny little man has something to say, but his tongue just isn't ready yet. His hands though, are starting to tell quite the tale, and I look forward to talking with him daily.

I had a chat with a German fellow while in Spain this last week who had a 15-month old, and I mentioned that we were teaching the baby sign language and that many Americans were trying this technique.

I explained that we felt that there was a window of time, from about 9 months old to whenever the baby starts talking, that was had great potential for not just communicating with your baby, but connecting and letting the baby know their needs matter. That many of us had the idea that babies cry when their needs aren't met and sign language was a good way for the baby to effectively express their intent.

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

We use the Baby Signing Time videos, as well as Dr. Joseph Garcia's Baby Signers, but really any ASL dictionary will do. Z's got about 12 words now, but I suspect he's picking them up as fast as we can learn them ourselves.

If you've got an infant, I really encourage you to try Sign Language. We're a multi-lingual house already and hope Z will speak English and some Ndebele, and I plan to have him in a Spanish immersion program. If you treat ASL as just another language, it helps (me at least) the mental model. We just move our hands while we talk to him, and I'm very happy with the results.

Have you signed to your baby? When did you start? When did they sign back? Do any of you have older (4, 6, 8...) kids that still sign? Do any of you think this is all nonsense? Discuss.

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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November 22, 2006 11:56
I'm sorry I don't know the full background to your family, but was someone in your family already knowledgable of sign language? Was it an academic exercise to have him learn it?

Fascinating outcome though.

November 22, 2006 13:57
I have a 2.5 years old daughter who started talking pretty early. It was rather surprising, especially since we are also a multi-langual home (Hebrew and French), and usually multi-langual kids tend to start talking later. At the time, I hadn't heard of sign language for babies.
We now have a little 1.5 months old girl, and I'm struggling with the question of sign language. On the one hand, it looks very appealing, especially since many parents report getting feedback and true communication at a much earlier stage when using sign language. On the other hand, it's yet another (third) language for her to learn, and we will have to teach her "big" sister the signs as well, making things more complicated. Also, opponents of sign language for babies claim that since they find a way to communicate with signs, they tend to take more time learning to talk, since they have an alternative for verbal communication that works.
What do you think, from your experience? Do you feel Z's knowledge of signs is helping him in improving his verbal capabilities, or does it make him less prone to try and express himself with words?
November 22, 2006 15:38
We wanted to teach our youngest son sign language, but never got very far. About the only one we ever did was "more", which is touching your fingers together like you're piling things on top of each other.

He is four and a half now, and sometimes we still see him touching his fingertips together when asking (verbally) for more of something.

Friends of ours have a daughter who is just turning two, and their pediatrician was surprised to hear she was speaking in some full sentences. Most two year olds are just putting together two word sentences.

Above all, I would say the biggest thing is simply communicating with your kids. We never went for "baby talk" and talked to both our boys in full sentences. I used to have conversations with our youngest well before he could talk (even as early as 1 month) where I'd say my part of the conversation and leave pauses where he would answer. My wife and I also never allowed the boys to scream or whine to get something. They had to ask, even if it was just baby talk. We eventually figured out what they meant.
November 22, 2006 15:48
Interesting, signing isn't something I'd heard of here in the UK when my kids (7 & 5 now) were that age. Or now, come to that.

I think that the conceptual leap that children make when they "get" that the sounds they hear relate to something, and then build on the labels to understand other parts of speech, is perhaps the most colossal one that any of us make in our lifetimes. Except for old farts like myself "getting" OO programming, perhaps (if indeed I have). I've seen some research that suggests we have evolved a degree of built-in preprogramming for language - when you see it come into action in real-time, you can believe it.

Watching your children acquire the fundamental building blocks of, well, pretty much everything, is one of the unexpected delights of parenthood. Watching them continue to infer rules (correctly or otherwise) as they progress continues to be a source of fascination for me.

Of course, they induce unexpected learning experiences in the parents, too: I learned that I could catch vomit in my bare hands at 3am, for example, something for which I was entirely unprepared...
November 22, 2006 15:58
We used a small subset of ASL with both our kids (now 7 & 10) with similar experiences. Both kids were clearly ready to communicate before the fine motor skills required for speach were ready. It saved us hours of grief trying to figure out what was going on because they could just "tell" us.
November 22, 2006 17:10
I found the topic intriguing when we talked in Barcelona about it, and we're thinking about applying it to our younger daughter (7months old now) and see how it goes, as compared to her elder daughter (3 years old).

We'll see :)
November 22, 2006 18:19
Scott, thanks for sharing this post. I always share these posts with my wife as well. She's a speech pathologist in a preschool and uses sign language daily with children she works with who can't communicate verbally yet. From what I understand, starting with communication early can drastically help children with their communication skills. Good for you!
November 22, 2006 18:51
We have been teaching Brandon, my 21 month old, sign since about 12 months. After he started picking it up, you could notice a change in his personality as he was less frustrated now that he could say "All Done" or "Milk". Mom was also less frustrated because he would say "Please" and "Thank You".

The problems we are having now is trying to get him to verbalize these responses instead of signing them, but our Neurologist said this is normal for boys.
November 22, 2006 18:54
We have some friends in the neighborhood who have a daughter who has several disabilities. They showed us the Signing Times videos and we were hooked. Our first daughter was about a year old. She picked up the signs quickly and we loved communicating with her. It made her terrible twos much less terrible. Plus it was a cute parlor trick to show family and friends this little kid who can't talk much yet who knows all these signs. We have found that we sign less now that she is three and can talk our ears off. Our second daughter is about 3 months and hope to expose her to signing soon. I think it adds to a fun family culture.
November 22, 2006 18:55
My wife and I used sign language with our son (now 4) and the results were REALLY worth it. The power it unleashes, especially for boys who can be late talkers compared to girls, is really liberating for them. Your description of the Home Depot experience is right on. There were many times where I found myself "discovering" that Jackson was using a sign we had taught him before, and just never noticed hime ever using it. We are now doing the same with our daughter (10 months). Personally, I think everyone should do this with their children.
November 22, 2006 19:52
We have try to sign a few words, but we were not consistent enough I don't think. :-(
November 22, 2006 20:24
This is the first time I've ever heard of signing with infants. Of course, the moment I heard it, it made absolute sense. Kids can obviously move their fingers before they move their mouths. Now I look at it and I'm just shocked that I'm only hearing about this now.

As a multi-lingual myself (French & English), I can attest to the highs and lows of learning two languages. Your multilingual link is spot on; I've even read suggestions that simple exposure to foreign languages early on can help with learning new languages.

As to multi-lingual + Signing, I can only see benefits. Imagine that signing is actually your base language and that you can layer other languages over top. The brain is run on associations, this is how we learn. With signing as a base, I can associate multiple words with a single sign and effectively use that sign as a "bridge" or association.

From an OO perspective (this is a tech site), this is the equivalent of Signing as a base class with each language inheriting from Signing :) Usually, when learning new languages, we tie our new words to our existing words, but now, the we can tie (most) new words to signs, which in turn tie themselves to our existing set of words.

Personally, if possible, I wouldn't stop at baby signing. If a child can progress to a more complete ASL, then they will have an amazing tool "at their fingertips".
November 22, 2006 20:26
We tried using ASL with our daughter, but she only picked up a few of the words (more and milk). Like Albert, I think we just were not consistent enough (although it certainly felt like I was signing everything). It is a great technique though and I still recommend that new parents try it. Even just the few signs my daughter learned were helpful in breaking the communication barrier.

I also know what you mean about your 'bathtime story.' I can remember vividly when my daughter started putting a series of actions together. The first one I remember is "let's go put your shoes on" and she ran into her room, opened the drawer with her shoes, pulled out the ones she wanted, sat down and tried putting them on. She was about 9-11 months old at the time. I was flabbergasted...and brimming with pride. After all, she is my kid. ;-)

And this is so true [and hilarious!]: "Of course, they induce unexpected learning experiences in the parents, too: I learned that I could catch vomit in my bare hands at 3am, for example, something for which I was entirely unprepared..." - from Mike Woodhouse above
November 22, 2006 21:16
We used ASL with both our son and daughter (now ages 5 and 2). It made a BIG difference in communicating with both of them at an early age.

Geoffrey used to string words together (early sentences) with signs MUCH sooner than he did verbally. Both of the children still use signs periodically...

If we have any more children, I will definitely be using ASL for them as well.
November 22, 2006 21:36
We used signing with our first daughter (who is now 2.5 years old). Without a doubt hugely worth it. She now talks non-stop, but when she was still not yet talking, her ability to sign greatly helped to keep frustration levels down - both for us and for her (especially as she REALLY wanted to communicate). She started talking very early; whether this had anything to do with her ability to sign I don't know - it did seem however that she very quickly started to attempt to articulate with her voice what she was signing.

I must admit I was skeptical, while my wife was committed. There was a time there that it felt like a pointless waste of time. But once Reigna started using signing to communicate it was wonderful (especially for me because while babies are out-of-this-world amazing, I truly get excited the older they get and the more I can communicate with them).

Without hesitation we will be signing with our three month old daughter.
November 22, 2006 22:04
I'm a big fan of signs for babies and toddlers. One of my good friends taught his youngest signs, and it paid off incredibly. When my wife and I had our daughter we were gung-ho about signing with our daughter. She is now 19 months old, and because she is starting to talk we can confirm that she understands all of the signs we show her, but she has flat refused to do any signing. We continue to sign with her, and she continues to understand when we do, but we have not gotten so much as a finger wiggle that would indicate she wants to communicate back with us using signs....perhaps she feels that such childish nonsense is beneath her, I don't know. I have a feeling that this does not bode well for her up-coming teenage years.

Despite our daughter's stubbornness we will be signing with our next baby (due in April), and we're hoping the next one is a little more willing to share.

I also highly recommend the signing time videos/dvds. We were able to find them at our local library. My daughter loves them as well...though not enough to do any signing.

November 22, 2006 22:09
We taught our daughter several words at around the same age you are with Z. Simple stuff like More please, Done, Yes, No, Stop, I love you, etc. Her pre-school and Sunday school also taught some ASL. She is now 7 and it is nice that we can tell her to stop doing something across a room without hollering if we can get her attention.

She's now in her second year of a dual-language immersion program (Spanish/English) and it's amazing how much she has learned. I ate lunch with her yesterday and she was able to translate everything the teacher was saying. She reads books to me in Spanish and then translates it into English so we can be sure she understands what she is reading. I remember enough from my 4 years of high-school Spanish to know if she is pronouncing things correctly, but she has already surpassed my ability to understand Spanish.
November 23, 2006 0:14
Dr. Nic - No it wasn't academic, it was purely selfish. I didn't want to wait for 2 or even 3 years to get inside his head. I really want(ed) to know what he wants, what's interesting to him, and ASL seemed like the way to do it. Nearly all American kids in their teens and tweens play with sign language, usually "Finger Spelling" but I have always personally had a fascination with the language. I've studied it on and off, and taken classes on and off, and in this case, foisted it upon my family. Fortunately it worked out.

You totally don't need to have a background in the academic aspects of deaf culture to do this though, just pick up a video, select a subset of signs (less than 10) and use them CONSISTENTLY. It might take a month, or 5 months, but they WILL pick it up. At least, that's based on my *VAST* parenting experience (of nearly one year!)

November 23, 2006 0:15
Ilan Assayag - in our case, my gut tells me that Z is MORE likely to express himself verbally, not just because he's already a verbal (read: loud) child, but because he can attach something physical, like a gesture, to another object. He always says "lala" when signing light, for example.
November 23, 2006 0:47
@scott - thanks, truly fascinating idea - giving the child an alternate way to communicate before its mouth is ready to work properly. Thanks for sharing the success stories. Its something I think I'll investigate over the holidays.

November 23, 2006 2:57
My wife and I signed with both our boys (now 7 and 5) and it was really wonderful. We didn't do full ASL signing, but short ASL-based signs for simple nouns and verbs. My first boy really took off on it, and has always been very communicative. Now his sentence structure, and his ability to express himself is very advanced for his age. Our second son didn't latch on to signing as much. Some, but he did start talking fairly early too. (Having two young boys in the house we may not have been as consistently signing with him as our first too....)
For those who doubt it and say they know what their babies want from their cries, I say you don't know the half of it. Crying is binary, (OK maybe with different types of cries it's a nibble) but signing is a full byte or more.... my favorite story is when our son signed to us "no peas, more banana!" without crying, without pushing away bowls of food or grabbing. He was calm, he signed and we understood. And you bet we gave him LOTS of banana!
November 23, 2006 10:13
>...crazy to me that babies can hold a thought that long. Hell, I can't hold a thought that long

the Z-man definitely gets it from Mo's side of the family.
November 24, 2006 7:51
We started to teach our 1 year old daughter sign language, but she is very verbal. We would always show her the sign and say the word for the object and she would always just say the word. Now if she wants milk or juice or water she says "juice". Yesterday morning she stopped eating breakfast and started to go downstairs, her mother asked "Where are you going?", Amelia popped her head back around the corner and said "downstairs" and continued to go down the stairs leaving my wife with her head spinning in the kitchen. I think a lot of her advancement comes from the fact that we always just talked to her like she was another person rather than talking around her or just about her.

re: immersion classes, I say the earlier the better. We've had our daughter in a French class for about 4 months now. At first we didn't think she was picking anything up, but now she's calling things by their French name and their English name. Maybe we'll see if the Indian family next door wants to babysit her more often and she might pick up Hindi.
November 28, 2006 11:33

Both Gabby and Gia were taught about 10 words in sign. Tina's mom is a retired speech path with Mult. ESD. Tina and her mother drove most of the signing. It really helped in the transition from crying, to express needs, to talking. I think the girls liked "more" the most... We liked "please" and "more". Gabby's first grade teacher also exposed the class to sign also. They learned basic stuff and songs. I think Z's on his way to Harvard or Stanford anyway but I want to say that being bi-lingual will help him the most in aquiring languages. Gabby moved to speaking fast. However Gia was later than her sister and the signing helped her express her BASIC needs better. I'm sure she would have got her point across, but it seemed smoother to all involved. Jack

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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.