When we got pregnant, my husband and I decided we were going to teach our child sign language. We learned that before a child is able to physically speak, as in having developed muscle tone and coordination to move the mouth, tongue and breath, they have the hand coordination to sign. And since their little brains are working hard on thoughts and feelings from the get-go, signing gives them the opportunity to express their needs. It also provides a level of confidence and patience since they know you will understand them, while preventing a lot of frustrating moments.
My good friends as well as my hub’s cousins were all successful in teaching their children sign language and they recommended some books and DVDs to help us get started. Once my son made the realization that these gestures were a form of communication, his world expanded immediately.
Sign language can seem very intimidating at first, so here’s some advice to get started:
- You don’t have to learn all the signs, all at once. The nice thing about starting ASL (American Sign Language) with your baby is there are only a few words that are really important to them: Mommy, Daddy, Milk, and More are the easiest and most used throughout the day. Once your baby gets 3-4 signs down, then you can start adding words specific to their needs. So you learn as they learn. And if you use the signs everyday, they really become second nature.
- Yes, they will learn to speak. It’s a common misconception that if your child learns ASL then they will have a speech delay. Signs should always used in conjunction with talking aloud, so your child is receiving visual and auditory queues each time. Remember, signs allow your child to communicate before they are physically able to form words. My son had severe sensory issues that affected his speech and willingness to tolerate any textures in his mouth which caused his speech delay. We worked hard with our Speech Teacher to help him sign and speak. Since he was given the communication opportunities he needed right away, he naturally started to sign less as his speech improved. As a side note, when your child learns how to say a word, praise them a LOT! Continue to get really excited whenever they say that word to promote consistent use. At this point, stop using the sign to help the transition from sign to speech.
- Use motivational toys. With my son, he wouldn’t imitate or acquire a new skill unless he felt it was really necessary. So the first sign he learned wasn’t Milk or Bottle (because I couldn’t let him hungry-cry until he reciprocated the sign)…it was More. Our Speech Teacher used super fun toys as motivation to imitate the sign. So she would bring a really exciting new toy and let him play with it for just a moment, then take it away and ask him to repeat the More sign. Of course, he picked up on that super fast!! (Smart cookie this one) From there, he made the connection that he could get things faster if he just made the sign and then learning new signs became easier.
- The signs don’t have to be perfect and your child might even make some up. The great thing about signing with your child is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. As long as you both understand what the gesture means, then just keep reinforcing it. It’s more important that they use the sign appropriately and consistently than it is about getting the sign correct. For example, the sign for BOTTLE is a two handed gesture and my son had a weak left arm, so a double motion would have been very difficult and frustrating for him. Instead we taught him the sign for MILK, which is basically just squeezing one hand open and closed. This was way easier for him to do so we both could understand his needs easier. Additionally, there were a few signs he just randomly made up…which took some time on my part to figure out what he was trying to communicate. But once I got it, then we continued to use that gesture for that word.
- Teach your signs to family and caretakers. To help reinforce his communication skills, we shared the signs he learned with my parents and his EI teachers. That way, in his little world of people, he would feel comfortable communicating no matter who was around him. This in turn helped him open up a little more socially which is something we are always working on improving.
Here’s a few helpful resources that we used:
The Linguistics Girl YouTube videos: This is like an online dictionary for ASL. She has super short videos for tons of useful signs so it’s easy to search if you forget a sign or if you need to learn a new one.
SIGN with your BABY Complete Learning Kit is a great book with accompanying DVD that gives beginners an overview of sign language in a straight-forward approach.
Signing Time Videos can be found via DVDs for purchase on their website or streaming on various YouTube channels. I’ll be honest here, these videos got on my nerves after awhile..the host Rachel is super SUPER expressive and uses a lot of songs to help teach the signs…but the signs stick! Seriously I have most of the songs memorized and even now, if I see a sign I can hear her voice singing the tune that goes along with it. LOL!
So remember, start off slow and have fun with it! Your child will be so happy to communicate with you.