Scott Hanselman

Baby Sign Language - Update at 2 years

November 11, 2007 Comment on this post [13] Posted in Musings | Parenting | Z
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UPDATE: Check out for more info on Babies and Sign Language!

My son is nearly two years old. He's 23 months. I suspect we'll stop counting months after he's second birthday.

It's always fun to be recognized at a conference and have folks ask about technology, but more and more people want to talk to me about Baby Sign Language. Most often they're folks from outside the U.S., which I think is great. I blogged about Baby Sign twice previously:

Often parents concerns are that a baby who is taught sign language will speak later or will be developmentally slowed in some way due to "confusion." Are they supposed to talk or sign?

I have found this with my own child, my brother's child and all my signing friend's children to be totally false. If anything the child begins speaking with more sophisticated phrases than one would expect.

My belief is this (remembering that I'm neither a doctor, nor a parenting expert, just a Signing Enthusiast and current father of one):

There is a window in a baby's development when they have needs, wants and feelings to express. This window might be from 6 months to 18 months or from 12 months to 2 years. It's usually at least a year long, and it's that time when your baby is "in there" but isn't able to express themselves verbally. Our goal with my son was to get involved in his head for that "missing year" and see what he had to say. For us, it prevented a lot of tantrums and early confusion about what he needed. Instead, he simply told us what was on his mind.

However, they haven't got the tools. If you listened carefully to their cries, posture and other thing I'm sure you'd find that the child was trying to get their need out, but it was either too subtle or unclear for us to see. Using Baby Signing - which is simply American Sign Language or ASL - is a way of formalizing this easily communication with your baby and letting he or she know that we're here, and we're listening.

When a child discovers that they are seen, that their opinion matters and that their parents understand them, I believe it enables and extends so many other interactions with our kids.

How To Start

A gentleman at the PNPSummit from Europe approached me to ask about Baby Signing for his 6 month old. This is the ideal time to start. The baby is just starting to get their bearings and realize that they are not alone and that there's a whole world to interact with.

Pick some basic signs, no more than 4 or 5, since you're going to be learning Sign Language as the child does. Plus, the baby's ability to learn signs will surpass your own very quickly.

To start with, we taught him: Milk, More, Eat, Dog, Mommy and Daddy. We did this from 6 months to about 9 months before we got anything. This is tip #1 - be patient. You'll do it for literally months before it'll POP one day. One day he or she will sign and they won't shut up until they move out of the house 20 years later.

He signed More one day, and the others quickly followed. The key was that we always signed while we spoke. This is important Tip #2 - teaching your child sign language doesn't mean you don't talk to them. Always talk and sign at the same time. Eventually the child will learn that talking is easier and abandon most signs. At two, my son rarely signs as he's not go the words for everything he had previously learned the sign for. However, the signs are still in his head if we need them someday.

You can buy an ASL Dictionary online, or get an inexpensive subscription to a site like that includes a video dictionary of over 2800 words. There are photo sites, but they don't quite capture the jist as the images are static. (There are also some free sites like the one at Michigan State University although it requires Quicktime and for you to click twice on the video to get it to play.)

There's also a great FREE "Signing Success Guide" here as a PDF on the Baby Signing Time site.


Many of my friends and family have taught their kids sign. For many, including all the non-American's, 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 after a couple weeks signing 3 words to her (duck, drink and milk), she signed the duck! I was blown away by how fast she started with the first one, but it took another month for her to start picking up more and more signs. When she was exactly one year old (about a month after we started), I got a couple of books which tought me more techniques and approaches to signing to make it more effective. Three months later, she's able to sign: duck, drink, milk, cookie/cracker, eat, more, baby, take a bath, need heulp, hot, dog, cat, monkey, flower, shoes, hat, pain, water, sleep, silence (and clip, which Agustina uses at the kindergarten to also mean silence), dance (this one she made it up and we learned what she meant!). That's 22 words for a 15 months-old baby that can barely say Mom and Agus (her sister's nickname and the first thing she learnt to say :)). And there are many more that she understands but she's not signing yet.

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. "

Daniel as a native Spanish speaker also got an interesting sign benefit when we recommended Rachel's Baby Signing Time videos:

We bought a couple DVDs from the Baby Signing Time collection (awesome stuff) which both Aylen and Agustina love. It's playing on my TV almost every day for at least a couple hours. It teaches new signs through songs and showing other babies doing them, and it does so while pronouncing the words in english. That may sound obvious to you, but we live in Argentina, so english is not our primary language. However, both girls are now learning the words in both english and spanish at the same time! So my baby signs "baby" when you say the word in english AND spanish too! It's simply amazing.

Another good friend emailed last week when his daughter announced with sign that she needed to have her diaper changed:

"perhaps it's too soon to tell -- but we think we've had good consistent responses on the hand sign for "change me" today.
Great stuff!! [she's 9 months old now]"

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.

And Craig also sees Sign to be a good complement to an already bilingual education. ASL is recognized here by colleges as a legitimate foreign language:

It's funny for me to hear resistance to the idea. The one that really puzzles me is the "it'll slow down their speech" one. Not only is this contrary to clinical evidence (IIRC - we did the research but I no longer have the citation), but my personal experience has been the opposite. Ellen, like Z, is bilingual in verbal languages (Chinese and English), and despite that seems to have verbal capabilities comparable to her contemporaries.

Does Ellen still sign? Yes she does, but not to communicate. She communicates exclusively (and nearly endlessly :) ) verbally, but there are about five signs she still makes even when speaking. For example, she still signs "sorry" even as she says it - in English or in Chinese.

I'm really interested to hear in the comments from anyone else whose had success with teaching their infant Sign Language. It's worked great for us. We're going to teach Un-named Son #2 sign lanuage. He's due in less than two weeks!

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 11, 2007 4:34
I actually bought the Baby Signing Time DVDs after I saw them on this site. Our son is almost 8 months old now, and he already knows the signs for Eat and Milk (typical). The first time it happened we weren't sure, but it happens every day, so we're sure of it now. Thanks for the recommendation!
November 11, 2007 5:23
We taught our kids (4 and 20 mos) sign as well. Don't worry if they aren't "perfect" with their actions, the sign also helps develop their fine motor skills. As an example, my son (20 mos) puts his fists together for "more" instead of his fingers. The important thing is that you are having a 2 way conversation with your kids. I will also say that our experience with our kids and their tantrums are in line with Scott's; fewer and shorter.
November 11, 2007 8:41
My six year old step-daughter loves this Signing Time's DVD. I never considered trying to teach it to a 6 month old, but it makes perfect sense. Now my wife, who's five months pregnant, and I are both excited about the prospects of baby signing. Thanks for the info!
November 11, 2007 17:09
We encouraged our children to teach their new babies sign language. They all have (so far) turned out very well developed verbally. I also believe that this is because they learn earlier the value of actual communication sooner.

One of our granddaughters (about 5+ years) would remember her signs and use them to communicate with her new cousin. Now the younger granddaughter has a baby brother andI expect she will use that (and talking) to talk with him.

Not always obvious, but soon the extended family all want to learn the signs, so that they can "converse" with the kids instead of asking for translations.

Lastly, my younger granddaughter (about 3 1/2) still uses some signs when we talk via video phone over internet.

One more thing that you can do is have two DIFFERENT conversations going. One verbally and one visual. It's rather interesting. Of course, this after they've gotten fairly confident about their language, so that they understand the two modes are not contradicting each other.

Looking forward to hearing how the older one interacts with the new arrival along these lines.
November 11, 2007 20:23
My wife and I taught our son sign language from shortly after birth (he is 5 now), and have experienced very similar positive results with it. Regrettably, we did not push very hard to expand his sign vocabulary - we only taught him about 15 or so signs, basically only the stuff we considered really useful. This was not intentional, we just kept doing the same signs and stopped learning new ones ourselves. After he started talking, we dropped signing altogether.

I've actually had a similar problem with teaching my son Italian (my first language) - he knows maybe 40 words, but I have a very hard time pushing myself to teach past that level. He is learning to read and write in English here in the U.S., and I am worried I am missing my window of opportunity to raise him truly bilingual.

My wife is due in about 6 weeks with our daughter, and I want to do better on both the sign and spoken fronts (especially for Italian, or my mom is going to kill me): Scott, do you have any advice for how to get past this hurdle? Does Mo speak English to Z at all?
P.S. - Congrats on Hanselson 2.0.
November 11, 2007 22:28
My wife and I used ASL with our son Daniel and it has definately helped us avoid a lot of frustration. It took quite a long time of us repeating the signs before he caught on, but once he did things moved a lot quicker. At around 1 year old he had a signing vocabulary of around 50-60 words (most of those being animals). We were lucky to have Signing Time on the air on a local public broadcasting station and they quickly became Daniel's favorite thing to watch (using the Media Center they were basically there for him/us on demand). Daniel is two now and still asks to watch Signing Time every once and while, but like Scott's son has now moved on to using mostly words (though the other day he signed Thank You since I told him he couldn't talk with his mouth full at dinner).

We know several kids around his age that were not taught signing and they did seem to pick up verbal communication faster than Daniel did; however, I was never concerned with this since he was communicating just fine with us and had been for months.
November 12, 2007 5:21
This is the article I have been looking for. My wife and I just found out Baby Sign Language last week. We will most definitely put in a order for those DVDs now. Thanks.
November 12, 2007 5:39
We tried signing to our son (who just turned 2) but I suspect we weren't patient enough and gave up once he started speaking words.

Reading to our son since before he was born, and nurturing his visual and auditory world seems to have benefited immensely. He now has a vocabulary of at least 500+ words, and read his first book (Bears in the night) to me the other week, which just blew me away! I was supposed to be reading him bedtime stories :)

At first I thought he had just memorized the story, but I covered up the pictures and asked him to read the sentences from random pages, which he did without any problems. Being able to map actions to words is such a simple concept, but it seems to have worked a treat, so I can see how signing could be a very useful communication tool.

Best wishes for a safe delivery and a healthy mother and baby!
November 12, 2007 21:47
The videos are good for child and parent as well. I have 3 kids ages 4, 3 and 15 mos (please insert OMG! or other shocking remarks here) and while I again feel the signing is good for overall education and expression, I've noticed with my oldest and middle child that the use of consistent, proper, and well spoken english in has also worked well. When they were younger I never tried to use "baby talk" around them too much so I'd like to think that may have helped in their verbal development but that doesn't mean I never used "baby talk" around them or discouraged other from doing so. My daughter is the 3 year old, and while she sounds like Rose from the Will Ferrell LandLord video at times (especially when angry but without the swearing) she speaks extremely well for her age and has done since she early this year when she was just a little over 2 years of age. She is currently in a pre-school setting with other kids her age and is by far (not just bragging here) the child in the class with the best grammar and pronunciation. Now not all cases are like this and she has been fortunate enough to have an older sibling to mimic, who also began speaking very well at an early age. Hopefully this will take with my youngest child. Unfortunately with 3 kids the time to consistently sit with him and practice signing becomes harder, but he has demonstrated signs at times so again hats off to the creators and instructors of this series as it is very well put together.

November 13, 2007 1:15
We used some sign language with both our kids before they could talk, and it was a big help. One of the biggest gains is when they were feeling sick - they could sign "pain" (left and right index fingers touching) and indicate the location of the pain (head, tummy, etc.) by signing near the appropriate body part. We didn't have a video, but we did use the book Sign With Your Baby by Joseph Garcia as a loose guide.
November 14, 2007 2:42
We have not used sign language with our - currently - 2 kids. But if we do have another one, we'll definitely give it a try.

What I wanted to say though is that we also have heard of concerns that kids growing up with more than one language would start talking later. Generally, I think, they talk of a time-frame of one year per additional language. But we haven't made that experience at all, either.

My wife is Spanish, though speaking Catalan to the kids. Myself I'm German hence keeping the conversation in German only. But between my wife and myself we still speak English with each other. And that hasn't changed since moving from the UK down to Spain (actually Catalunya where they speak Catalan) six years back, just after our first daughter was born. Part of the reason for this was our then only child, so she'd also get English as a by-product if you like. This year she started primary school being taught Catalan, Spanish and English. That makes it four languages altogether, and she's dealing pretty well with all this. And so does the second daughter, now 18 months of age, who some 6 weeks ago started pronouncing her first words.

Our little helper for those first years of our children's life has been a book called BabyTalk, written by Sally Ward (and that's nothing to do with "baby talk" Tim referred to in an earlier comment, but rather talking to them normally, giving them a lot of input, seeing what they're looking at and tell them what it is, and not asking questions, at least not at an early age to prevent putting them under the stress of having to know what's being asked of them). We won't give up on that book for #3 if, or when, it comes. But nor will I hesitate to add a 5th language, the Baby Sign Language. It's exciting - or should that be mind-boggling? - that you can get, as Scott puts it, involved in their head for that "missing year".

I know this was not totally related to this post, but I just wanted to hook into these concerns that were mentioned.

Enjoy #2 - I hope everything goes really well for all of you all.
November 20, 2007 4:33
We began signing with our first son, now 2+ years old when he was six months. We only worked with 5 or 6 signs (more, milk, eat, change, toilet, hear) he picked them up quite quickly and used them until he started talking. Now he doesn't sign unless he's being very adamant about something. The first time I took him on a roller coaster, he couldn't stop signing AND saying "more! more! more!". He is now quite the talker, stringing together 3 and 4 word sentences all day long.

Since my background is in linguistics, I knew this was a great way to go to help our children communicate with us before they were able to speak. Personally, I believe the fear that they won't learn to speak as quickly later is ignorant on the part of the parent and underestimates the child's ability to learn. This is the same flawed mentality people use to not teach their child a second language (common among immigrants to the US during much the 20th century), when this is the absolute best time to do so: the part of the brain tuned to language acquisition is incredibly powerful until about age 9, an early start only helps.

My second boy just turned 7 months, and I'm actively signing to him at every opportunity. I'm going to try and use more sign-words with him, and can't wait to see the results.
November 28, 2007 10:24
As Ted notes, children are never "confused" in a multi-lingual environment, as anyone who's grown up that way can attest. It does not slow their linguistic development, nor do children have much (or any) problem keeping their languages straight -- they don't unconsciously mix up words from different languages when speaking. (Although they might do this consciously if they know that their interlocutor understands what they're saying -- multi-lingual families will often slip between languages depending on context, mood, familial habit, etc.) Children can also keep straight who to speak what language to -- they know, for example, that grandma speaks Chinese (or German or Spanish or Tagalog), kids on the playground speak English, and mom and dad speak both. What will happen is that children will strongly favor the language used by their peers -- they'll understand the language(s) they're surrounded with at home, but once their social life involves other children, they will generally want to speak what the other kids speak, even if they can, with sufficient prodding and/or need, produce other languages.

I experienced this all firsthand, actually.

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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.