Baby Sign Language: Tips and Research

Transcript of this week's interview with pediatric speech-language pathologist Adrienne, of "Learn With Adrienne." Our discussion focuses on Adrienne's special interest in using gestures and Sign Language with young children as a tool to support the development of verbal language, the evidence that supports this practice, as well as some great tips and resources for parents, caregivers and professionals interested in using Sign Language with infants and toddlers. 

Ayelet: Today, I am very pleased to welcome a special guest to the Strength In Words podcast, a fellow speech and language pathologist who has also dedicated her work to the education of families with young children, Adrienne (of Learn With Adrienne”). She has so many helpful videos on YouTube and Facebook featuring great ideas for language stimulation, and offers loads of helpful resources for parents, caregivers, educators and fellow therapists – so, thanks so much for being here with us, Adrienne!

Adrienne: Thanks so much! I’ve been a long-time listener of your podcast, and it’s such a joy to talk with you today.

Ayelet: Great! So I know that one of your areas of interest and expertise is the use of sign language as a tool to help young children acquire language. So, can you tell us, what are some of the reasons why sign language is useful for early communicators?

Adrienne: There are many ways that sign language boosts language development. Using signs with young children can reduce frustration. So, signing gives children a symbolic way to communicate before they’re able to speak verbally. This reduces stress for everyone involved because now, there’s a way for your child to let you know what he or she needs instead of crying, pointing, and grunting to communicate. So, when a child's family and caregivers use signs when they speak, the child gets the chance to experience the word in a multi-sensory way. So that means that you get to hear the word as you say it, they get to see it as you sign it, they feel it as they sign it, and then finally, they’ll say it, eventually. And there’s also good evidence that producing a motor movement makes it easier for some children to produce the word, which is really incredible.

When a child’s family and caregivers use signs when they speak, the child gets the chance to experience the word in a multi-sensory way. So that means that you get to hear the word as you say it, they get to see it as you sign it, they feel it as they sign it, and then finally, they’ll say it, eventually.

Since children can learn signs as early as 6 months of age, sign language training may contribute to the prevention of problems for young children who are at risk of developmental delays and language delays, because it can get their needs met, and they don’t have to resort to behaviors that aren’t as effective. Not very much learning can happen when kids are crying, and so, continuing to support their communication attempts through signing is something that can really build a great foundation for them. It also increases their confidence. When children are given an alternative form of communication, they become more confident knowing that they can communicate by using something other than whining, grunting and crying.

Signing with children gives them a gross motor form of communication that they can be successful with at an earlier age while their fine motor system continues to develop so they can eventually start talking. Speaking uses a lot of energy, and a lot of different fine motor systems such as breath support, vocal cord control, using your tongue and lips and mouth, and even your nasal passage to say different sounds, and so that’s a lot of different things going on at once. So, signing is more of a gross motor skill that kids can use, you know they use their hands and arms, and wrists and fingers, so they’re able to be more successful coordinating those movements earlier than they can when they’re trying to talk with all those fine motor, really intricate skills.

Sign Language Motivators

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Ayelet: I think that the idea of signing with young children can often be seen as sort of a confusing subject. Obviously, parents want to help their children communicate – that’s a given, right? So, since sign languages were born out of Deaf communities all over the world, the idea that Sign can also be used for hearing children is, I guess, relatively new. So, what does the research say about whether using Sign Language can hinder speech development? Because I think this is a common misconception. Can you bust this myth right open for us, Adrienne?

Adrienne: Yes! I can! That is a great question, and it is one that I get a lot. People who are listening to this podcast may have heard somewhere along the way the myth that teaching a child to sign will “cause them not to talk,” or that it will “make them lazy.” This is actually the opposite of what research says. I wrote my entire thesis on this very topic, and I actually titled it, “To Sign or Not To Sign,” because it is such a popular question and topic. So, what the research and studies reveal is a resounding conclusion that signing does not hinder verbal development. To the contrary, the studies prove that gesturing facilitates verbal skill acquisition. This means that Sign Language helps children when they’re learning to speak. Another study reveals that Sign Language can help parents decode their babies’ verbal sounds once they do start talking. So, if they start talking and their pronunciation is unclear, signing can help parents understand what their child wants because it’s more of a concrete visual representation of communication. The use of signing eases communication and clarifies the pronunciation of words, so parents can understand their baby’s first attempts at producing words, and it really decreases frustration.

What the research and studies reveal is a resounding conclusion that signing does not hinder verbal development. To the contrary, the studies prove that gesturing facilitates verbal skill acquisition.

Once a child can talk clearly, their voice will replace their signing, because talking is quicker than signing – and as humans, we love to do things the quick and easy way to do them. When we have the ability to talk, we do; once kids are able to speak, they will. So, that is a very common misconception. And, actually, last week, it broke my heart, because I was working with a toddler and his mother, and his mother told me that she had started signing with her child, and her pediatrician told her to stop, because her child would not talk if he only signed. And I was so sad to hear that – because she was doing the right thing! And so that was incorrect advice based on the research. Signing gives your child language, well before he or she is able to talk verbally, and language is power. It equips your children with a skill that they’ll need for their whole life. It sets them up for success in all areas, like reading, speaking, Math, English, Science, following directions, and learning new skills and being able to understand language.

So, if you’ve been told by someone not to sign with your child for some reason, please know that the person may not know what the research says, and they’re advising you based on their own assumptions, and not on facts. Also, I have this quote from Laura Mize. She’s a pediatric speech-language pathologist, and she has this article about using Sign Language, and she says,

Some parents are afraid that signing makes a baby lazy about using words. This is absolutely false. When babies can talk, they do talk. Not signing because you’re scared your baby would prefer signs instead of words is as crazy as saying you won’t let your baby crawl because you’re afraid he won’t learn to walk! Or, not teaching your baby to wave ‘bye-bye’ because you think he won’t learn to say ‘bye-bye.’ Signing is an extension of using gestures to communicate. As long as you keep emphasizing the spoken word as you sign, your baby will associate the word with the sign, and drop the sign when he or she can consistently say the word.”

So, I love that quote from Laura Mize, because I think it breaks it down very clearly.

Ayelet: Yes. And we know that all of us use the most efficient way to communicate, right? If the most efficient way to communicate in a certain moment is to point, then that’s what we’re going to do, and sometimes we use multi-modal communication, we point and we say, “it’s over there!” to heighten the understanding. And like you said, and like Laura Mize said, it’s that extension of a gesture. And we do have to remember that infants and toddlers especially are learning, it’s a progression. I think I mentioned this in a previous podcast episode, The Babblers & Bangers, where we talked about how around the time that children are starting to babble, they’re also often using this sort of rhythmic arm movement, and that that is a way to look at very early emerging gestural use, and when we play vocally with our children, and we play gesturally with our children and we interact, we’re teaching them how to communicate. And all of these things go into verbal and non-verbal communication. So, thank you, that’s really great to break it down for us, Adrienne.

So you work with primarily with families who have delayed verbal skills, but in recent years, the popularity of using Sign Language with infants and toddlers who are following a typical progression of development has actually grown a lot, I think. So, what’s the consensus here, does signing boost language development for children who are developing along a typical progression of development?

Adrienne: Mmm, I love this question, because yes, it does help boost language development, and, this is really cool – the children who learn to sign are actually considered partially bilingual, because they have learned two distinct ways to express and concepts and, like you mentioned earlier, different modalities. Signing stimulates intellectual development and emotional growth. There’s a study that’s proven that when typically-developing children entered kindergarten, the kids who learned Sign Language had higher language scores, used more sophisticated play, and it makes sense that babies learning Sign Language perform better because they’re constantly reinforced verbally when they make a sign. So their parents are like, “yes! That’s right, more juice, more toy, more song.”

Ayelet: They get, like, double-time reinforcement!

Adrienne: Yes, exactly. Because they’re able to sign earlier than they can talk, and so their parents aren’t only talking to them when they can talk back to them. It’s definitely a way to enrich their communication skills. And it is likely that parents who teach their babies to sign actually talk to their babies more, because their babies can communicate earlier, so it gives the child a head start in that critical period of language development, when they’re really soaking in everything. So the child has more practice with language skills because their parents engage way more often and use more words earlier. Using more words is a predictor of language success later in life. And so, the more times children hear words, the more quickly they learn to say them. And so, I love that research, because it really shows the difference that learning language early – Sign Language, or talking, or in your case, using songs as a form of communication and boosting those social and communication skills… I just love how it all works together, and plays an important role in development.

Ayelet: I think it’s important, though, maybe to distinguish between… there are people who are actually teaching their children “Sign Language,” who may, maybe they come from a family who has actually a person within the Deaf community within the family who uses Sign Language, and then there are people who are using a few signs to help their babies communicate. And I think those are, sometimes, two distinct groups of people. So, I think, when we say that children who learn Sign Language are partially bilingual, they’ve learned two distinct ways to express themselves, yes – but I think that a lot of the research that I’ve seen does state that, yes, children who even just learn a few signs… because of what you said, they’re being reinforced more and more and more by those caregivers, they’re getting multi-modal communication, they’re getting the word in sign, they’re getting the word as they can hear it (because they are hearing children) so, often times, they are sort of predisposed to be within an environment that’s getting more language stimulation. So yeah, that’s really interesting.

Adrienne: Yes, it really provides a language-rich environment for kids. And also, research has shown that learning Sign Language increases the number of positive interactions and decreases the number of negative interactions between parents and children. And so that further establishes that point that they’ll be able to have a more consistently positive social experience with caregivers and family members because they’re getting their needs met sooner than they’re able to talk. This story’s pretty cool – I came across this in my research – where, a 16-month old child woke up crying in the middle of the night, and he was able to use the sign for “afraid” and then point to a clown doll on his dresser that was casting a shadow and kind of creepy. And so he let his mom know that he was afraid of it, so his mom removed the doll from the room, and the child was able to go back to sleep. So, without the sign for “afraid” though, the baby would have just pointed to the clown, and the mom would have been like, “oh, he wants the clown in his crib!” and he would have been terrified, and that would have caused him even more distress! So using signs in this way, helps a child form that stable attachment to his parents, and it really builds a trusting relationship – you know what I’m trying to tell you, and you are acting on what I’m telling you. So, it provides a child with a sense of control. When babies know their parents will reliably and consistently meet their needs, they definitely form that positive, social attachment to their parents that’s really supportive for language development.

When babies know their parents will reliably and consistently meet their needs, they definitely form that positive, social attachment to their parents that’s really supportive for language development.

Ayelet: So what are some of the most important techniques that you’d recommend to parents and caregivers when they are introducing sign to an infant or toddler?

Adrienne: I would recommend the same strategies that I use for teaching words – verbal words. So, first thing I would say is repetition. They’re not going to learn it the first time you sign it to them, and I would recommend picking one, maybe two words that you’d like to focus on first, and really repeat those throughout their day, in different contexts, they need to see it over and over, and definitely, when you’re signing, you need to be saying the word out loud, too. So they can hear it and see it, so they can begin to pair the word with the sign. Repetition is so important, repetition is so important, repetition is so important… see?

The word or sign for "bubbles" is a great early, concrete motivating word!

The word or sign for "bubbles" is a great early, concrete motivating word!

Another tip is to help them make the shapes with their hands. So if you notice they’re watching you really closely, they’re looking at your hands, but they’re not signing it, you can actually hold on to their hands and make the shape with their hands. This will help them to understand what you expect them to do. You can make it fun – it’s not a serious, “let’s sit down now and learn a bunch of signs today!” I would recommend keeping it simple, incorporating the signs into play, into songs and games. I like to sing a song, and then stop, and then have them sign, “more,” and then show them how to do the sign, and then, once they sign it, then I’ll start singing again. Repetition, saying the word as you sign it, making it fun, and helping them make the shapes are my biggest techniques that I would use.

Ayelet: I think, though, that it’s important to distinguish between what you said, which is helping them make the shapes vs. making their hands into the shape, what we call in the field of speech-language pathology, “hand-over-hand assistance.” So, there’s sort of a difference between watching them watching you be interested in your hands, vs., “here – let me show you how it’s done,” and taking their hands and manipulating their hands, instead. We always talk in Strength In Words about following your child’s lead, and that totally applies here, and also applies to what you just said, Adrienne, I just wanted to stop and make sure that was clear to families who are listening, as well. Just that distinguishing between following your child’s interest and them watching your hands and manipulating their hands just because that’s what you want them to do.

Adrienne: Exactly, yeah. Definitely wait for them to be observing them and seeing your hands moving. And if you notice they’re trying to do a motion and they’re struggling, that’s when, yeah, definitely supporting the “hand-over-hand,” but waiting until you notice that they are noticing. Because if you just all of the sudden come out of nowhere and hold their hands and make them do all these crazy things, they’re not going to understand why, or what you’re doing, and it probably will not be as beneficial.

Ayelet: Right, and not as natural of an interaction!

Adrienne: Yeah

baby eating food.jpg

Ayelet: So you mentioned the sign for “more,” which I think is a really common early, high value word that a lot of people go to first, but what are some other ones that you think are either equally or more beneficial than that word, “more?”

Adrienne: Well, I like to follow the pattern of spoken words and how they develop. Kids tend to learn nouns a lot faster and a lot earlier than they learn verbs or abstract concepts, so nouns are probably more motivating because they’re concrete and they’re visual. So, these are people, places, objects, things… for example, the noun, “dog” is something that kids can see, feel, hear, sometimes they can smell – so, it’s easier for them to learn the sign for “dog” than it would be for something more abstract like “happy” or “joy” or “please” or “thank you,” even.

Ayelet: Or even “more,” actually!

Adrienne: Or even, “more,” exactly! Yeah, the sign for “more” is more of a cause and effect kind of sign. It’s a really powerful… “power” sign, because they can generalize it to be used with anything. It can be “more cracker, more cookie…” and so, I know some people discourage the use of “more,” and so there’s a lot of literature on that topic. Mainly, keep the words concrete: so, if you can point to it, and they can see what it is, then that would be a good sign to teach, just as a rule of thumb. So, you can point to a door; you can teach the sign for door. You can point to a cup; you can teach the sign for cup. When you’re first starting out, I would stick to those nouns, because they are way more concrete, and your child will be able to pair the sign with the visual and the verbal word, so it’s a win-win.

Ayelet: And like you said, keep them highly motivating, which is totally dependent on the child! So, I think the first 5 signs for every child, I don’t think you could necessarily say, “oh, definitely do hot dog, father….” Blah, blah, blah… because, number one, that child may never have seen a hot dog before, or had any experience with it! Number two, there may not be a father figure in their life. So, it’s all so, so, so individualized: highly motivating people, places and objects, I think that’s great, and that is such an individualized thing.

Adrienne: Definitely. And, there is a resource that I’ve created, actually. It’s a free mini video series on my website where I teach the most common food and drink signs for children. So, food and drinks are motivating.

Ayelet: Everybody eats! Or sees food.

Adrienne: Yeah! And they’re really those power words, and it can get the child what they want, because it helps them to request something. And so, that can be found at learnwithadrienne.com, at my website. That’s a great place to start if your kids love food, then you can learn a bunch of food signs with that.

Ayelet: Now, we talked a little bit about making hand shapes with the child or for the child. Is it important that the child make the sign correctly?

Adrienne: No, not in my mind, at least. Just as we can still understand a child who says “mo” instead of “more,” articulating every single sound – as long as they’re signing something close to the sign, even if it’s not perfect, if you know what they’re trying to say and they know what they’re trying to say, then it’s a success because your child is communicating with you – and that’s the goal of Sign Language, is communication. As long as both parties know what’s being said, you’re good to go! If they sign something totally different but they always sign it the same way, if you know what they’re saying, you can continue to give them their request. But then after, I would sign it correctly, so that they can see it, and as they fine tune their motor skills, they’ll be able to fine tune their sign to be more “correct.” So, don’t worry if they’re signing something that seems a little bit off or it’s not exactly perfect, just keep encouraging that, and keep that environment positive.

Ayelet: I mean, we have to remember, too, that they’re still perfecting their motor patterns!

Adrienne: Yeah, it’s a process.

Ayelet: Again, it’s a process, exactly. From bigger to smaller. Also, another little piece to remember: to assume intentionality. I remember when I was signing a few words with my son when he was… I think I started around 5-6 months old. And then, when he was about 7 months old, he signed the word back to me for “milk,” and I was like, “oh my god, he signed milk.” And, you know, it was the first time, and I was like, “Ok, did that just happen? I don’t know!” And I thought, “ok, well, I think he did, so I then offered him milk, I said, ‘ok, you want milk! Oh, ok, let’s have some milk,” and sure enough, he accepted it! I mean, I can never know at that moment whether he actually, absolutely signed "milk," but I assumed he did, and from then on, he continued to ask for it in that way, and that’s how he continued to sign!

Adrienne: Amazing, that cause and effect – they learn it so quickly. And that control is pretty powerful for someone who is just learning to communicate.

Ayelet: Yes, and I think for parents and caregivers, too – certainly for myself – when I realized that he did that, I thought to myself, “oh my gosh. He understands so much more than I give this little person credit for!” And we have to remind ourselves that they do! Whenever we talk about them, around them, they understand more than we think they do. And we have to be careful, and we have to be loving, and we have to be sincere. And so, when we give them those tools, they will take advantage of them, that’s really great.

So, do you, Adrienne, have any other favorite resources or tips for families?

Adrienne: I do! I do have some favorite resources. There’s a show that’s called Signing Time, and it’s on Netflix, and it has really fun songs that teach songs. The person who teaches them, she wraps her fingers with different colored tape so it’s easier to see what her fingers are doing. That’s a little bit for older kids, I would say, but if you’re a parent looking to learn some signs, it’s a great place to learn. The website, teachmetotalk.com, by Laura Mize, is another resource, and it has many articles and videos about language development for children – not just Sign Language, but verbal language, and she has a podcast as well. So that’s a resource that I go to time and time again when I’m sharing tips and strategies with parents. And then, as I mentioned before, if you want to go ahead and get started using some commonly used signs, a resource that you could use is my free lesson about using food and drink signs with your child. And then, I also have a fully online Sign Language course for beginners, where you can learn 300 of the most commonly used signs in one month. So, this is for ambitious and motivated parents, and it’s a wonderful resource because you have lifetime access to the class, and you can review whenever and wherever you want – on your computer, tablet, smartphone, it’s really portable and mobile. And so, your podcast listeners can get started with the very first lesson of my course for free by going to learnwithadrienne.com so they can get started learning Sign Language today if they’re really motivated and jazzed up about this podcast and want to start learning signs and teaching their child signs. So yeah, those are my favorite resources.

Ayelet: Great, Adrienne. Thank you so much, this has been such a pleasure to have you.

Adrienne: Thank you!


Adrienne is a Speech-Language Pathologist who teaches Sign Language to beginners. She has created videos on Youtube and her Sign Language Online Course for beginners. Her passion is to teach Sign Language by simplifying signs into bite-sized, step-by-step directions, while giving memory strategies. Adrienne is dedicated to helping beginners learn Sign Language so that they can begin to communicate with family members, friends, classmates, or customers who are deaf or hard of hearing. Adrienne's mission: Sign to Connect.

Sign up for her Sign Language Online Course here (I consider this course such a great resource, I became an affiliate!)

Learn 15 food and drink Sign Language words here 

Get the first lesson of her online course for free here

Watch Adrienne's Facebook Live videos here


References & Resources

Hand Gestures Boost Spoken and Signed Language LearningThe ASHA Leader, 19(11), 14. doi: 10.1044/leader.RIB1.19112014.14.

Talking Before Speaking? Using Sign Language to Increase Communication Skills in Late Talking Toddlers. http://teachmetotalk.com/2008/02/11/talking-before-speaking-using-sign-language-to-increase-communication-skills/

Early Sign Language Vocabulary. http://teachmetotalk.com/2008/02/19/early-sign-language-vocabulary/

Acredulo, L., & Goodwyn, S. (1988). Symbolic gesturing in normal infants [Electronic version]. Child Development59(2), 450-466. From Academic Search Premier

Battel, S. S. (2004). Better than baby talk. Mothering, 32-38. From Academic Search Premier.

Garrett, G. B., & Baquedano-Lopez, P. (2002). Language socialization: Reproduction and continuity, transformation and change [Electronic version].Annual Reviews of Anthropology, 339-361. From Academic Search Premier.

Goodwyn, S. W., Acredolo, L. P., & Brown, C. A. (2000). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development [Electronic version]. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 81-103. From Academic Search Premier.

Goodwyn, S. W., & Acredolo, L. P. (1993). Symbolic gesture versus word: Is there a modality advantage for onset of symbol use? [Electronic version] Child Development, 688-701. From Academic Search Premier.

Pizer, G., Walters, K., & Meier, R. P. (2007). Bringing up baby with baby signs: Language ideologies and socialization in hearing families [Electronic version]. Sign Language Studies7(4), 387-430. From Academic Search Premier.


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Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP

Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist specializing in work with pre-verbal infants, toddlers, non-verbal children, and their families. The Strength In Words podcast and blog were created as an additional resource for families of young children with infants & toddlers of all developmental levels. It is not intended to be a substitute for speech and language therapy.