Sometimes your baby is reluctant to sign and would prefer to take shortcuts (or just grunt!). You’ll need a technique for getting around this. It’s pretty simple, but just set up choices for your baby which requires them to communication. For example, say you just present your baby with an APPLE and nothing else. If you ask your baby “Do you want an APPLE?” your baby might just reach, grunting or whine for the apple. If your baby really wants the apple they might even show an excited look on their face, bounce up and down with their eyes light up. Before your baby learned sign language, this would have been fine, and how most non-signing parents “talk” to their baby, however for our signing baby, this is far too prehistoric. Therefore, because we are teaching them signs, we need ways to extract language from them. We need to give them at least two options and allow them tell us what they want.
To do this, simply offer your baby two choices. Present your baby with an APPLE and a BANANA. Now they can’t just grunt and reach as you’ll have no idea what they are talking about. When both are presented, the answer can’t just be “yes” or “no”, rather it requires your baby to make a statement – to communicate their desires. If your baby still won’t use the sign, model each of the signs once again, and then re-show the apple and banana. After this sequence, put both fruit down and ask again which they’d prefer.
Above: Mom, he wanted GARLIC, not CARROTS! In this video you can see how the vocalization my son makes is ambiguous and so too is his sign, but between the two of us we figure out what he wants. Often the context is the cue when signs look similar, but sometimes a toddler can still leave you guessing!
Whenever you want your baby to sign, always hesitate to give your baby enough incentive to speak up. Babies, like all people, appreciate instant gratification and if it’s something particularly desirable, they’ll be more apt to sign than wait. By now you’ll probably know which of the apple and banana excites your baby the most, so if your baby still won’t sign, then just model the correct sign for them one more time and say “Oh, I see you want the BANANA.” Then give the banana to your baby. If you repeat this technique enough times, eventually your baby is going to figure out that getting things can be expedited by speaking up. Setting up choices can work in more situations than just at mealtimes, it can work while reading, playing games and so forth.
Above: Banana: To make the ALS sign for BANANA use the dominant to “pull down” the sections of the banana’s peel. Here, the index finger is pointed upwards and serves as the bananas flesh.