Teaching Your Baby Sign Language
A baby begins communicating the day she arrives in the world. She will attempt to explain how she feels and what she needs in stages: from crying, to hand gestures, to sounds, and, eventually, to words. Unfortunately, for the first nine months of her life, you probably won’t understand what she is saying. Crying can mean anything, from a dirty diaper to an earache; and because most children don’t begin to use real words for their needs until they become 9 to 12 months of age, chances are their crying could go misunderstood.
What can a parent do to better communicate with a baby? Many turn to teaching their infant sign language, and with good reason: Children who learn to communicate through signs can express their needs earlier than those who don’t learn. Studies have shown that those children who learn to sign while they are young often grasp language skills more quickly than those who don’t.
A study conducted by NIH compared two groups of 11-month-old babies; the first group learned sign language, and the second group had only verbal training. At the age of two, the first group (signers) exhibited verbal skills three months ahead of those who didn’t learn to sign; and, six years later, the signers showed IQ levels 12 points higher than the non-signers. While the study was small, results are significant enough to suggest babies who learn to sign will have an easier time learning to speak in the future.
Jen Murphy, the lead teacher in the infant room at Baylor University’s Piper Center for Family Studies and Child Development, says the earlier you begin teaching sign language the better. “We start as soon as they’re here, even though they don’t have the motor skills to sign back,” she says. This means working with children as young as eight weeks old. “We start with mealtime, with ‘milk’ usually as the first sign. Then we progress to signs for ‘more,’ ‘finished,’ and ‘please.’” As the children get older, Murphy teaches signs for emotions, such as mad, sad, and happy.
Why does sign language work? Murphy believes it is effective because people learn in a variety of ways – some are visual learners, some auditory, and some sensory. Sign language combines and reinforces all three modes of learning. “When you sign, you do so close to your face,” says Murphy. “They see your mouth move, they hear your voice, and they see your hand signaling. It all works together.”
The teaching of sign language doesn’t have to take place in a formal setting. If you have your child’s attention, show a sign. For instance, if your baby reaches for her sippy cup full of milk, sign “milk.” If she looks at a bird, and then back to you, show her the sign for “bird.”
Don’t get frustrated if it takes time for your baby to sign back. “Remember that sign language is like spoken language,” says Murphy. Children learn one word at a time. And the more you sign to your baby, the better her chances are for picking up the language.
Looking for words to teach your baby? The link http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/concepts.htm categorizes American Sign Language (ASL) words most likely used with young children, and includes an accompanying video of the sign being performed for each word.