In the past few years, baby signing has increased in popularity- right along with stroller fitness and music class. While these all seem to have very similar benefits in that they offer bonding time for the infants with their caregiver (or parent)- baby signing gives babies the benefit of earlier communication.
Ideally, infants should start learning sign language between 4-8 months. Until the child has motor skills (about 6 to 8 months)- they’re not likely to sign back just yet.
Of course, you don’t have to take a class. You can get plenty of resources on ASL (American Sign Language), BSL (British Sign Language), Makaton, and others online- including videos so that you know you’re doing it right.
When you’re just getting started, you should introduce just a few words such as finished, more, eat, milk, mommy, daddy, and others that are common in the infant’s day.
The key to teaching them is repetition. Every time you say the word, sign it- there is a good chance that he or she will begin signing it back to you eventually.
Following, you will find nine benefits to teaching infants to sign.
1. Signing gives the infant the ability to communicate earlier than speaking
As a preschool teacher, you already know that infants and toddlers understand more than they are able to express, right? Their receptive language skills (what they are able to comprehend) develop at a much faster rate than their expressive language skills (what they are able to communicate to you). In fact, the truth is that their auditory perceptual skills and the motor skills they need to speak are not developed enough until they are at least 10 to 12 months old- and continue to develop from there.
2. Signing to communicate potentially leads to less tantrums
In most cases, a toddler’s tantrum is due to the fact that they are unable to communicate exactly what they want or need at the moment. This is where the term “terrible twos” comes from. The truth is, they’re not terrible- they’re just frustrated and misunderstood. If the infant/toddler is able to use sign language to communicate with you, he or she will be able to effectively express what is going on at that moment- and have needs met.
3. Signing increases a child’s language and vocabulary skills
When you are teaching an infant to sign, you’ll find that you’re also saying the word out loud as you are showing them the sign. You’ll be talking to them about the things you are teaching. For example, when a dog walks by- you will get down to their level and say “Do you see the dog? It’s a D-O-G.” Then, you will most likely say it again. You’ll find that when you are teaching sign language to infants, you will actually be talking about and repeating things more than you would if you were not teaching them to sign. This auditory and visual repetition will be effective for increasing their expressive and receptive vocabulary.
In addition to the repetition involved with teaching sign language, you will also find that it gives these opportunities to learn language in a kinesthetic, visual mode. This serves to increase the infant’s ability to learn.
4. Signing may increase a child’s IQ and their reading/spelling skills
Research indicates that hearing children who are taught to sign early in their life end up with better skills in reading and spelling- and may even have higher IQ scores later on in life.
5. Signing may increase a child’s visual and joint attention skills
In order to use and understand sign language, a child must use his visual and joint attention skills. Both of these are critical in social and learning situations.
6. Signing is a great way to bond- for parents and teachers- with infants
Yes, it is true that teaching an infant/toddler sign language is a great way to bond. After all, when you are teaching them to sign- it requires you to get down to their level and look them in the eye- and gets them to focus on you. You are required to interact with the child- label, talk, describe, and demonstrate the sign for an item. In many cases, you will guide the child’s hands into making the sign, hand-over-hand. This increases the bond that you have with that child. Of course, it does take up a lot more time when there are several children under your care, but the payoff is worth it.
7. Signing promotes the child’s fine motor skills
When you are teaching a child to sign, it allows them lots of opportunities to practice their fine motor skills when they sign back to you.
8. Signing allows children who can hear to interact with others who are deaf
There are many people in the world who use ASL (or others, depending on the country) to communicate with each other because they are deaf. Think about how wonderful it would be if a hearing child met a child who was deaf and they were able to communicate because someone- whether a parent or a teacher- took the time to teach them how to sign.
9. Signing with infants/toddlers is so much fun
This is a fun, interactive way to break up the day for a child. Even though you may be working with older toddlers on colors, shapes, and counting to five- adding sign language into the mix makes it that much more interesting- plus, you can add the signs to the other concepts you are teaching. The look of joy on their faces when they pick up a new sign is priceless!
When to Start Teaching Sign Language
One of the most common questions regarding baby sign language is when to start teaching it. The concensus is that you can begin as early as six months with most infants. However, every child is different, and it’s a good idea to start signing when you are talking to them early on. Chances are they will most likely use their first sign around six to nine months of age.
The truth is that you can start teaching baby sign language as soon as you are able to keep eye contact with the infant. After all, teaching requires that the infant be able to focus on your hand movements and have the skills necessary to connect that movement with a particular item.
If you believe he or she is ready, you can start teaching an infant sign language as early as two to three months. Though it’s not the norm- it can be done. If you haven’t already been working with an infant, it’s never too late to start. It is quite common to teach baby sign language all the way up to three years old.
One of the best ways to figure out if an infant is ready to start learning and using baby sign language is when he or she is able to understand/use most of the simple hand motions such as “hi”, “bye”, or “yes” and “no.” You’ll want to start by consistently using the sign when you are using the item. Keep in mind that it will take lots of patience and repetition- but once the infant signs his or her first word, the others will follow quickly.
Keep in mind that- in the beginning, the child may seem a bit confused and make faces at you. This just means that he or she is trying to determine what you are doing. It is definitely not hard to teach an infant sign language- but it does require that both parents and teachers be alert to any attempts of the baby to sign. When he or she makes an attempt, it’s a good idea to give lots of praise and encouragement.
Sign language is an amazing way for communication to take place between infants and parents/caregivers. As long as you are patient and consistent, it won’t be too long before you’re able to have a conversation with the child- and it will only build from there.
Types of Sign Language
There is a common misconception that ASL, or American Sign Language, is universal- but that is not the case. Just as with verbal languages, there are many other types of sign language as well. For more information, check out our article: ASL is NOT Universal: Types of Sign Language Across the World.
Auslan (Australian Sign Language)
Auslan, or Australian Sign Language is the sign language that is used in Australia. It is closely related to BSL (British Sign Language) and NZSL (New Zealand Sign Language). The three of these comprise the BANZSL family. In addition, Auslan has been influenced by ASL (American Sign Language) and ISL (Irish Sign Language).
BSL (British Sign Language)
British Sign Language, referred to as BSL, is the sign language used in the UK (United Kingdom). As mentioned above, BSL is part of the trio of BANZSL (BSL, Auslan, & NZSL). All three of these descended from the same language family and have the same fingerspelling alphabet. Though English is predominantly spoken in America & the UK, the two sign languages, BSL & ASL, are very different. ASL uses one hand for their alphabet and BSL uses two.
Chinese Sign Language (CSL)
Chinese Sign Language, commonly referred to as CSL, started developing around the late 1950s. CSL is a lot like ASL in that the signs in CSL look very much like the written Chinese characters and the ASL manual alphabet looks like the written English alphabet.
Irish Sign Language (ISL)
Irish Sign Language, called ISL, is the sign language that is used primarily in the Republic of Ireland. ISL influenced sign languages in Australia and South Africa. This language was brought to England, Australia, Scotland, and South Africa by the Catholic missionaries. To this day, you can still see some remnants of ISL in some of the BSL variations- and some of the elderly Auslan Catholics use it as well.
Japanese Sign Language (JSL)
Japanese Sign Language, or JSL, is the sign language used in Japan. As mentioned earlier, CSL is much like ASL in that the signs look a lot like the Chinese characters used in writing. However, JSL is a lot different than ASL because in Japanese Sign Language, mouthing is used to distinguish between signs. Also, in JSL, fingerspelling is used much more often in JSL than in ASL & JSL uses finger writing, whereas ASL does not.
Spanish Sign Language (SSL)
Spanish Sign Language, known as SSL, is the sign language that is primarily used in Spain and just like Spanish is different than English, SSL is totally different from ASL. Spanish Sign Language is the same across Spain except in Valencia and Catalonia- which have their own sign languages- Valencian Sign Language and Catalan Sign Language). Spanish Sign Language has been influenced by French, Mexican, and American sign languages- and SSL had an influence on Venezuelan Sign Language.
Swedish Sign Language (TSP)
Swedish Sign Language, called TSP, is the sign language used in Sweden. This sign language did not come from any other sign languages, but it did have an influence on Portuguese Sign Language (PSR) and Finish Sign Language (FSL). In 1981, Swedish Sign Language was recognized as the official language of the deaf.
Image Credit: storiesandsigns.com