I have a new writer friend in Houston, Mimi Vance, who is a language specialist and writes picture books about baby-signing. She suggests that using basic sign language with your baby and toddler is a great way to open up the world of communication long before he or she is old enough to talk.
Baby-signing is also something close to my own heart since I used signing with my twins (who are now 13 and sometimes I wish they would still sign because it might make my house a little more peaceful at times!). I am sure it reduced a lot of their frustration as they became conscious of having needs and desires but were as yet unable to make them clear to the adults around them. There is research too which suggests that children who sign early also develop their spoken language skills faster and at a more advanced level.
I had studied British Sign Language (BSL) at evening classes for a year when I was first working, but had never really had the opportunity to use it. But then I read about signing with babies in a magazine when my twins were around a year old, so I began to teach them a few basic signs that I could remember.
On her website, Mimi suggests that the first signs you should teach your child would be eat, drink, more, all done, please and thank you. And funnily enough (considering I hadn’t read her books at the time) those are roughly the first signs that my twins learned. They certainly used signs for milk, juice, eat (yes, and specific signs for cake and biscuit/cookie too), as well as signs for each other’s names and for their older sister. Interestingly, neither twin could exactly replicate my sign for their sister’s name (I used the BSL sign for pretty), but they each created their own version of it and used it regularly to ask where she was or to answer a question about her. I remember too that Daddy’s name was the sign for man and Mummy’s name was the sign for woman.
By the time the twins were starting to talk, however, they had around forty words, including animals and places, and signs for the people close to them. Some of these were BSL signs, but some I just made up. As I began writing this post, I remembered that I had taken some photos of them signing, and so I went rooting around in my photo archive and found these, taken when the twins were around 18 months old.
|Doing her sign for elephant|
(see her lifting her trunk into the air?)
|And this is squirrel|
(well, it was actually the sign for rabbit – two waggly ears –
but she was in the park looking at squirrels
so it's close enough)
|And here is ice-cream – |
he’s licking his finger as if it were an ice-cream cone.
Just check out that pleading look in his eye!
Of course, you have to be careful not to get so over excited with the fact that your kid at 18 months is clearly and politely asking for ice-cream, please that you give them everything they ask for. Saying no can still cause a fuss, but having a clear sign for later can often dispel the oncoming tantrum.
If you are interested in signing with your baby or toddler, but are feeling unsure about where to start, please trust me, it really isn’t hard to do and you don’t need to know lots of American or British Sign Language before you start. Just start with a few signs - there are pictures on Mimi’s website here of basic ones to start with.
But remember to be consistent. Every time you ask your child if he would like a drink or something to eat etc, use the sign, and I promise you will be surprised how quickly he/she starts to sign it back to you. Make sure that you also teach the signs to everyone caring for your babe. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be for him or her to be madly signing “I want my lunch” (eat) to Grandma, only to be complimented on how well he is pointing to his mouth, clever boy?
There are great resources for signs you can use in Mimi’s books and online, but if you don’t know a sign for something, you can always make up your own. As long as you and the other carers are consistent with it, it really won’t make a difference. Children who have hearing impairments or other issues which will mean they are likely to use sign language to communicate throughout their childhood and adult life will need to use the appropriate sign language of their country, but a baby with no problems of that sort just needs to communicate with you and his or her carers.
If you are interested in starting to sign with your baby, here are some useful links both for British and American Sign Language baby-signing, and of course, you can always buy Mimi’s fabulous books and instructional cards right here!
Mimi’s new website and blog at www.wordsbythehandful.com is full of great information. Please visit her there.
British Sign Language:
babies-and-sign-language.com – British resource on baby-signing
britishsignlanguage.com – free BSL video dictionary
American Sign Language
wordsbythehandful.com – Mimi Vance’s website and American resource on baby-signing
signingsavvy.com – free online ASL video dictionary