Why teach your baby to sign?
Start teaching your baby sign language at six months and be able to communicate with them at nine. It may sound far-fetched but sign language in infants and toddlers has been proven to work.
'My son Lachlan was communicating with me at 11 months using sign language', says mum Jenny McConnell. 'At 14 months, he was signing words like "milk", "all gone", "finished", "biscuit" and "bed". If he ever grizzled for anything I would encourage him to communicate using sign language instead. The sign language I used was Auslan, which is used by the deaf community in Australia.'
McConnell, who has a hearing impairment, became interested in signing when she met with a deaf group at her church in 1996. A teacher, she went on to complete a Masters of Special Education in 2002. Four years later, she started the Tiny Hands Talk baby sign language system.
'Lachlan is three now and he is speaking very well,' she says. 'I still use sign language occasionally when singing songs, telling him stories, introducing him to numbers and teaching him the alphabet, and every so often I've told him to say "thank you" or "please" to someone, which would prompt him to say it and I didn't need to "say" a thing. Baby sign language can be used whenever you are speaking, as little or as much as you like, so there is no need to pull your child out of their natural environment to "teach" them signs.'
Why Sign Language for Babies?
Babies learn to talk during the first two years of their life. 'Oohs' and 'aahs' may occur in the first month or two, and by 10 to 14 months, babies usually utter their first word. Although there is a huge variance in the rate that speech develops in a child, generally an infant will start uttering sentences at 18 to 24 months. But imagine your baby being able to express their hunger, pain or discomfort before their first birthday?
'Communicating with young children before they've mastered the art of conversation can be a pretty frustrating exercise for all involved,' says Jackie Durnin, who developed the Australian Baby Hands guide to sign language after discovering there were few baby signing resources available to Australians. 'Throughout the world, the use of baby sign language is increasing in popularity in both the home and child care environment because it helps pre-verbal babies and toddlers to develop their early communication skills and reduce or avoid the frustrations of the "terrible twos".
Durnin, who has studied sign language in both Ireland and Australia, explains baby sign language is not new. 'Parents of deaf children, and deaf parents of hearing children, have long known that young babies can learn to communicate in basic signs before they learn to talk. Experience tells us that babies easily learn to copy grown-ups and wave good-bye, play peek-a-boo and clap their hands,' says Durnin. 'They learn through repetition in context, encouragement and praise. The path to learning baby sign language is no different.'
There are two main categories of signs when teaching baby. Need-based signs are those where the baby can express something they require. Examples include "milk", "sleepy", "hungry", "change me" and so forth. Motivating signs focus on interesting things to bub, for example "friend", "play" and "fun". Generally, it is advisable to teach your baby need-based signs first as it is through this common language that you will be able to grasp what your baby is trying to say.
What are the Benefits?
Some experts are concerned that using sign language with an infant could take priority over parents talking to their kids. Others worry that children may not feel the need to communicate with words as quickly since they can get what they want through sign - possibly stunting the development of speech. This, however, is not the case.
Babies readily acquire symbolic gestures, and proponents of signing say it gives them a way to communicate their thoughts and needs. Because they are able to acquire the ability to express their needs early on, their mind develops a rapid interest in increasing communication. It can also reduce frustration for both parent and child.
Research into sign language for hearing infants and toddlers began in the US in 1982 with Professor's Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. A 2005 study by the two found that when using baby sign language and talking to your baby at the same time, on average the children in the studies at 36 months were speaking at an equivalent level of non-signing 47-month-olds. So signing not only helps you communicate with your child but has also been proven to fast-forward their speaking abilities.
Encouraging your baby to sign may also improve other developmental aspects. Another research study led by Acredolo and Goodwyn found that signing babies have more advanced mental development, improved relationships, improved cognitive skills and larger spoken vocabularies. They say that just as crawling motivates a child to walk, so too does signing motivate a child to talk. They also state that babies naturally gesture before they talk as a means of communicating. Teaching infants basic sign language therefore builds on this natural development.
The term Auslan is a portmanteau word of "Australian sign language", and was devised by Associate Professor Trevor Johnston in the early 1980s, though the language is much older. The Australian government recognised Auslan as a "community language other than English" and the preferred language of the deaf community in policy statements in 1987 and 1991. Today there are courses teaching Auslan as a second language in schools and even a full-time diploma at TAFE. Though baby sign is generally only temporarily used for communication, it makes sense to use a system already in use Australia-wide.
In the case of Tiny Hands Talk, 70 percent of their signs are compatible with Auslan and can therefore be used with the hearing impaired. McConnell believes babies do not have the motor skills to perfect all of the Auslan signs, which is why 30 percent of Tiny Hands Talk signs are designed with only babies in mind.
Australian Baby Hands, on the other hand, is 100 percent Auslan. In some cases, there are a number of signs for the same word so Durnin thought it would make sense to use only Auslan signs, picking the easier options to mimic for baby. 'By using an established set of signs, unique to our country, it makes it easier to transition your child to different settings such as child care, as there is a chance these children too will be using Australian sign language,' she says.
Growth within the Community
Baby sign language has grown quite rapidly in Australia. Parents want to communicate with their child and these resources make it all the more easier. You can also purchase books to learn basic sign language, CDs, DVDs, posters and more. See the base of the page for links to where you can find these resources.
One popular children's TV show that has been utilising sign language for years is Play School on ABC. Sofya Gollan has been signing on the show for over 10 years. She is a guest presenter and does between six to 12 new episodes a year, though she is actually programmed more frequently due to re-runs. Gollan does everything the other presenters do but in sign language. 'I try to make sure that the signs I use are Auslan - or are visual gestures that can be easily understood,' she says.
Hey Dee Ho Music, which runs in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, also combine part of their program with Auslan, including "sing and sign" activities in their regular music classes, which make it fun and easier to learn. Within weeks, most children are able to use sign language to communicate various words and phrases.
Baby sign language can assist parents in understanding their baby or pre-verbal toddler's needs, help language-challenged children communicate better, and is said to assist children with their language development. Of course, it is also a fun and unique way to interact with your child. As Durnin says, 'Sign language is a beautiful visual language. Learning to sign has no "goals" to achieve, it is enough to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.'
How to start
Try these tips from Jackie Durnin, author of Australian Baby Hands, on teaching your baby how to sign.
When you introduce signing to your baby, gradually introduce signs one at a time. Start with a few words, no more than five at the beginning. Once your baby has begun to respond to those words, you can introduce more.
Signing is not something that will happen overnight. Be assured that your baby is learning from you, and will - when the time is right - let you know that they understand through signing. This learning process introduces invaluable interaction with your baby.
The key is to incorporate sign into your every day life. Each time you use a word, develop an automatic reaction to sign and say the word out loud.
Encourage your baby
When your child attempts to communicate by signing something they need, don't worry if it is only somewhat correct. Praise them, then say the word and repeat the sign correctly. Then give your child what they have asked for. This positive feedback will give your child a result that will encourage them to continue signing.