Important Facts About Infant Sign Language

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Baby Sign Language Basics

To describe the basics to baby sign language is to simply say that parents and caregivers should learn the vocabulary that is most important to the baby (the signs) and then repeat them at every possible opportunity (in context, of course) and do it without “teaching” but “modeling” the signs. While I was developing the Baby Sign Language in 14 Days program, I was responding to parents who wanted a practical delivery method they could learn quickly and incorporate it into their daily lives. It follows the basics I outline in the first sentence.

What Is Basic Infant Sign Language?

Even though my program is based on American Sign Language (ASL), a language that is wonderful and complex like all languages, basic infant sign language draws on the important topic signs or words in a concept and used those signs to relay meaning and communication. Babies often speak in one-word sentences when they begin speaking. For example, when a baby says or signs “EAT,” the baby is stating that they are hungry and want food all in that one word or sign.

When Can I Get Started With Sign Language For Infants?

From the moment your child comes into the world, they want to communicate. A parent’s voice is familiar to the baby, and having heard it in the womb, she responds more to those voices than to any other sound.

Crying is your baby’s principal means to get their needs met until more sophisticated means of communication develop. Your baby will use different crying sounds to convey hunger, fear, pain, or boredom. They use whatever means they have available to her to communicate, including smiling, watching your face, giggling, and pointing. They attempt to produce speech-like sounds long before clear spoken words emerge.

Their babbling patterns will start as random sounds and develop into conversational-style rhythms. You will notice that they will babble and then offer a pause for your response—like the send-and-respond rhythm exhibited by adults. This signifies that they are developing an understanding of how two-way communication works.

Sign Language for Infants - Timeline

Connecting signs or words with meaning at around four months old, your baby begins to focus, to be attracted to movement, and can recall objects and sounds. This is a great time for the parent and caregivers to begin to model the signs and start habitually making them and practicing being consistent. I call this time from four months to about 6-8 months the parent training time and the baby observation/learning time.

During the next few months baby’s scope expands. They start making sense of the noise and activity around them. They are drawn to objects that interest them, especially anything that is brightly colored, that has sound, that has an interesting shape, or that moves. They begin to recognize routine patterns that emerge in daily events and to notice the signs and words that accompany those events. Your baby begins to understand the connection between the events and the language, whether that language is expressed in words or signs. They begin to register that certain events tend to happen together, such as their laughter and Mommy’s smiles, or when Mommy approaches and feeding time begins. Their ability to recognize a link between two events, or a sign/word and an event, is a milestone in their language development.

Your baby begins to understand the meanings of words or signs at around their sixth or seventh month. They begin to grasp the connection between words or signs and what those words or signs represent. For example, they learn that the sign/word “MILK” means the nourishment they get from nursing mom or having the bottle. At this stage in their development, they possess the ability to communicate but are still constrained by their inability to clearly articulate words.

Somewhere around their sixth month, their motor skills support gestures or signs. This is possible after observing signs being modeled starting around the fourth month and the modeling is being consistently used in context. While their mental development is progressing, they are also making strides in their physical development.

By the time they are six to eight months old, their motor skills have developed sufficiently to allow them to hold objects and move them around with a fair degree of control. This is also the time when they can begin to experiment at making signs and watching to see the response, and if their signs are received, and what reward they get from their attempts to communicate.

Once they understand the relationship between words and signs and the things those words and signs represent, they can begin to construct language. Because they have more control over their hands than their voice, they can use their hands to form signs before they can use their voice to clearly say words. Babies babble with their words as they begin to learn to make sound, and they will also “babble” with their hands as they begin to form their signs; baby babbling occurs in both manual and verbal forms.

Your baby’s first attempts at making signs may be malformed. And often they will give a sign their own “accent,” meaning that they may make their sign a bit different from your version. Your baby will experiment and babble with their hands prior to forming more exact signs. They will continue to attempt to make the signs and pronounce the words until they get the appropriate response or see and hear the correct version enough times to realize that their version is not the same as their parent’s. It is up to you to notice what gestures they are making and under what circumstances so that you can equate the motion to a meaning. My sons and grandson both made the sign for “WATER” by holding up one finger to their mouths instead of the “W” hand shape because they could not yet form the “W” at their age.

At around eight months, your baby is still limited in their verbal abilities and has great difficulty pronouncing words. However, their manual dexterity has now developed to the extent that they are able to start mimicking your gestures, and they naturally gravitate towards using signs. Their ability to learn to use signs to communicate is rapid. They can now hold their arms up or point to something they desire, even though they are unable to say, “Please pick me up,” or “I want that.”

By the age of 12 months your child begins to ‘take off’ in terms of understanding and using language. Their first words may start to appear, but their motor skills are advanced enough to enable them to make many signs and develop a considerable vocabulary within a very short time.

At 16 months their vocal cords are fully formed, but they are still only able to use single words. On the other hand, they are dexterous enough to be using a great number of signs. By 18 to 21 months old they have started to say two-and three-word sentences. And by their second year, they are using increasingly complex sentences and asking more elaborate questions. Now their motor skills are supporting the rapid and fluid movement of their signing, alongside her words.

You'll be amazed what your infants wants to tell you – with signs and words!

In this video, big sister asks her little brother if he wants to get out of the highchair by signing "UP" with a questioning facial expression. Baby signs "DOWN". He wants out of the highchair and down so he can play and run around.

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