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Teaching Sign Language to Your Baby

When Ezekiel was six months old, he asked his mother for "more music" after his mobile stopped. Likewise, Joshua could call for the dog when he was also six months. Both sound like infant prodigies, but they hadn't yet begun to speak. Instead, they communicated these words and many more through sign language.

Neither Ezekiel nor Joshua is deaf, so why teach them sign language? Because studies have shown that through signing, babies can actually talk to you.

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Talk to the Hand

Talking is difficult—coordinating the mouth, teeth and tongue requires a finely-tuned set of motor skills. Instead, it's far easier for young children to use their hands to communicate—they can't see the position of the tongue to say "bye-bye," but they sure know how to wave. Tara Fersko, a pediatric speech language pathologist, explains that "developmentally, children are able to communicate with signs before they're able to speak. They point and wave because they've seen adults do it, and will sign if we sign with them."

In addition, teaching sign language can lead to a more peaceful household, one where "What do you want?" is not a weary refrain. "Most children's tantrums come from the fact that people can't understand them," says Lora Heller, teacher of a signing class in New York City called Babyfingers. "Once they know they're being understood, children relax." Because of Lora's classes, many Big Apple kids now know signs for "happy" "silly" "apple" and the all-important "potty." And according to Lora, they always want to learn more. "They're so excited to be able to communicate to those around them. It's a great motivator."

The First Sign

Credit goes to Joseph Garcia for being the first person to introduce hearing babies to sign language. Through his work with the deaf, Joseph noticed that hearing children of deaf parents could communicate far earlier than other children— in some cases as young as six weeks. Meanwhile, psychologists Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn from the University of California-Davis found that by age eight, children who had been taught to sign as infants scored a staggering 12 points higher on IQ tests.

Sign Language Concerns

There are worries that teaching sign language will slow down a child's speech development. "My friends signed up for signing classes with their babies," said Carly McGuire, mother of one-year-old Max, "but to me it just seemed like putting roadblocks in front of the way they should be learning. Like it confused the situation." But others strike a different tune. Olivia Meeks is the mother of three-year-old Elizabeth and a big fan of baby signing. "I think like with a lot of things, kids are smarter than we give them credit for. And the sooner we tap into that, and give them much more practice with language, the less they'll be afraid of it later on. Elizabeth had signs she used all the time when she was a baby, like 'milk,' 'Mommy,' and 'Daddy.' And now that she speaks, I can't get her to stop talking." Lora concurs: "By 18 months, a child should have about 10 spoken words. A signing child of the same age will have 10 spoken words and 10 signs … and possibly 10 more signs."

The Future of Baby Signs

And the buzz has spread across the country. Debra Messing of Will and Grace taught sign language to her infant son, Roman, and Meet the Fockers helped spike the trend when it featured Robert DeNiro teaching sign language to his grandson. Meanwhile, Joseph Garcia, Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, and Lora Heller all have books that instruct parents on how to teach basic signs. Though each has different methods of teaching signs and gestures, all believe that having fun with signs is the best way to make it an enriching experience for the child—and the parent.

How to Become Your Child's Sign Language Instructor

Want your child to be a signing star, but don't know where to begin? Lora offers these tips:

  • Make eye contact
  • Speak while simultaneously signing
  • Sign while doing the action—for example, sign "change" when you're changing your baby, and "milk" when giving a bottle
  • Teach the signs to all the important people in your baby's life, like babysitters and grandparents, to keep the learning consistent
  • Show your feelings
  • Respond with excitement to his or her attempt to sign
  • Be attentive to your child's likes and dislikes, new interests, and favorite things, as they will often be the things your baby is most interested in signing

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