How Sign Language Helped My Baby’s Verbal Skills—And How It Can Help Yours, Too

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When I was pregnant I heard about this quirky little thing called Baby Sign Language. Apparently—I was told—babies can learn how to use sign language before they can speak. Baby Sign Language is mostly advertised as being good to reduce toddler frustration (at not being able to tell you what they really, really want right now!). I googled it and found this super-cute (if a bit manic) video.

The whole thing sounded interesting and after all, if monkeys can sign, I figured my little one could, too! But watching the video I thought, “This baby can do 30 signs! That is crazy. If I do it I’ll just teach my kid about 5 or 10 signs, the really important things she needs to communicate to me—sleep, toilet, food, water…that kind of thing. Surely the woman in the video is some kind of pushy-super-uber-mom with too much time on her hands. I’ll just keep it simple and help my kid express the key things that will keep her from wigging out.” Good plan. God laughed.

At 19 months my kid had over 200 signs. How the ‘eck did that happen?!

Gzzzzzzzzzzzz—rewind a bit, again.

This is how it went down. After hearing about it, still not entirely convinced, I got out the book Baby Signs by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn (albeit in its first edition—which is kind of sweet in its dated-ness). The book got me and I got really, really into this idea of teaching my kid to sign. I have since realized that I have a keen interest in language and watching and supporting my kid acquire hers, in general…but I didn’t know that then; this was just the start of the journey.

Through my research, I discovered sign language has a few (inter-related) advantages and I liked them all:

  • It helps your baby communicate with you—telling you what is important to them and what they want you to focus on.
  • It helps you know what is going on for them, opening a (super-interesting) window on your child’s mind and helping you get even closer to them.
  • It reduces the frustration, for your child, of knowing what they want but not being able to tell you.
  • It acts as a bridge to language, priming their brain to learn the to-and-fro of communication more easily and earlier.
  • It improves cognitive function and IQ—and research indicates the results are lasting.
  • It is good fun! (Honestly, that is probably the main reason we went so far with it: because I was loving it, too.)
  • It is a great language to share as a family. You and your partner can have fun signing across a crowded room or over your kid’s head when they are not looking!  And older siblings often love showing signs to their new little sibs.

This book taught me many of my first signs. At this stage, though, I became convinced it would really help if both parents were on board, so I thought the easiest and most fun way to involve NinjaDad would be to go to a class, so we could learn in a social setting. As luck would have it, a friend decided to host a class at her house; we joined that one. The instructor would come in and teach us, on a weekend—perfect! And so it was that NinjaDad started to get really excited by it, too.

We taught our kid her first sign when she was 6 months old. That sign was food and I repeated it every time she had a meal. She signed her first word when she was 9 months old. That means there was a 3-month gap in which I was signing frantically to her and I was getting nothing back. I almost gave up. Her first sign was “fan”—as in ceiling fan. Her next two signs were “duck” and “light.” She didn’t sign “food” until she was over a year old (and had well over 50 signs under her belt). That taught me my first lesson: she is going to be most enthusiastic and motivated to sign about the things that she finds interesting not about the things I think are important. Hahaha! I guess I should be flattered, as a mom, that she never felt she had an urgent need to ask for food.

Then we just kept going. I was forever wondering when we’d stop. Oh, I’ll only teach her 50 or so. But then we’d get to 50 and her thirst for knowing more and more would egg me on. She would point at things and look at me expectantly. I bought a book, initially a simple ASL visual dictionary, so I could look up the signs she wanted to learn from me. Eventually that book stopped fulfilling all our needs (as it was not geared to kids, I guess) and I caught on to the fact that the easiest way to look up signs is online. And we were off. Her signed vocab kept growing and growing. And, alongside, her first words were coming in, too.

Then, at around 18 months there was a shift, and her interest in spoken words became much more acute than her interest in signs. At 19 months, as I said, she had just over 200 signs and coincidentally she had 200 spoken words, too. (Yes, I kept lists). And that is where it stopped. She just started acquiring so many new spoken words and at such a speed that she seemed to have no need for signs any more. She was off.

And here is that other thing they say about signers: They sometimes use spoken words a little later, but they catch up quickly and most often overtake the “average” non-signing kid. Signing kids tend to have an aptitude for language, acquiring new words and moving on to complex sentences earlier than otherwise expected.

Honestly, it is hard to tell on a child-by-child basis. Yeah, my kid seems “advanced” in her language, but so do so many of the Silicon Valley/Stanford offspring I know. In fact, some of my friends’ toddlers have stupidly large vocabs for their ages—particularly, I have noticed, those whose parents vaguely follow Attachment Parenting principles and/or those who pour attention, enthusiasm and responsiveness into their children—and that is not surprising, really. But I can tell you that studies that did seek to isolate sign language as a causal factor found that it, alone, can help boost a child’s IQ considerably. Research showed that at 8 years old “Signers showed IQ’s 12 points higher than the non-signers, even though they had long since stopped signing. This put the signers in the top 25% of 8-year-olds, compared to the non-signers [who received verbal training] who were close to average.”

Anecdotally, I can share that at 2 years old my daughter speaks in 6- and 7-word sentences and shows off such words as “alluminium” and “dodecahedron.” (Don’t ask!) By most standards she is pretty verbal. I am convinced  from my experience that signing was really what gave her a kick-start (as well as helping me understand her so much earlier).

Some children are more interested in language than others, for sure, so a fair amount of how a kid’s language turns out is out of our control. But I am also convinced (and studies show) that there is more to it, too. There are things that do help your kid develop language (and subsequently boost their IQ), such as:

  • speaking with them, describing the world and what you are doing, “narrating” your day;
  • developing “shared focus”—speaking about what they are  looking at or interacting with in that moment, following their natural interest;
  • getting down at eye level and letting them read your lips, literally (giving them valuable information about how to form their mouths around the words)—repeating a given word for as long as they are interested;
  • reading books, singing songs together, having fun with language and sounds;
  • being supportive, positive and responsive when children attempt to communicate, in any form; and
  • teaching kids sign language,

If your baby is between 4 and 14 months old and you want to teach them sign language, here are some tips for starting:

  • Get a book on baby sign language (from the library?) to get you into it, and/or go online and read more about the history and benefits of it;
  • Go to a local Baby Signs or baby ASL class or just jump right in: go straight to a sign language site and learn a few signs to teach your baby, and then follow their lead on which to learn next;
  • Involve your partner and other family members;
  • Be consistent—keep repeating the sign every time the object or action appears in your shared field of view;
  • Make sure you sign about what they are interested in or looking at, at the time (try not to direct them to look at things, so much—research shows it is more effective to “narrate” the world from their eye’s view than to try to get them to look at what we think they should/would be interested in, all the time);
  • Be patient—depending on your kid’s age and how consistent you are with it, it could take many months before they produce their first sign back to you. The younger the child, the longer it can take;
  • Check-out the Baby Sign books for kids for another cute way to show your kid some signs, and watch them think they can “read;”
  • Have fun with it. Include lots of silly, playful signs. Does your child play with your kitty a lot? Learn the sign for cat, early on. Does your kid love balloons? That is a super-sweet sign they’ll love to try and imitate.

And remember ASL is a real language, which means that your kid will be (at least) billingual if you teach them ASL. If you keep it up with them, which some families chose to do, it opens a world of opportunity up to them: ASL can be taken for credit in college, it can lead to a career or vocation in interpreting or teaching sign language (for the kids or the hearing impaired) and, perhaps most importantly, it can help communicate with a group of people, a community which otherwise can be so separate from this hearing community of ours. This could even be a small step in bringing these two worlds closer.

But let’s keep it basic for now. After all, I am the “crazy baby signs woman;” my kid knows 200 signs, which means I know considerably more than that, and I still can’t really communicate with a true signer. I can’t keep up. But this is a step, a fun step in the right direction and a great leap for your kid’s language skills and intelligence. Do it. I promise you’ll (eventually) have lots of fun with it!

 

Gauri Ma is a full-time mom to a beautiful 18-month-old daughter. She has a BA in Combined Social Sciences (with a major in Psychology) from Durham University in England. She has an MSc in International Development and has also studied Nutrition, Healing and Flower Essence Therapy. Her grandad was a pediatrician, her dad is a Natural Medicines Practitioner which means Gauri’s keen interest in natural health has been handed down through three generations. Her mom is now a teacher but was a Health Food cook, as Gauri was growing up – a baby-hippy! Gauri also worked for four years in a major Health Food store in London, giving advice in natural medicines and organic beauty products. She is an so-so cook but a great lover of food, who is learning to convert all that theoretical knowledge about nutrition into delicious, kid-friendly meals that are easy on the wallet and the cook. Gauri now blogs at www.LovingEarthMama.com.

Image provided by Gauri Ma

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