At 15 months, my son flapped his hands for ALL DONE, PLAY, TRUCK, BALL, WALK and MONKEY. Although he did make monkey sounds to go along with his MONKEY sign, which was entertaining! His sign for DIAPER and MILK were just about the same with opened and closed hand, WATER, EAT and HOT all had hands going to the mouth so appear very similar, MORE, HURT and SHOES had hands coming together so appear the same, and KITTY and PEACH would have been totally confusing without context. Then there’s his sign for DAD and HAT which might leave you wondering! [Right: A toddler signs HAT by putting his hand on his head]
None of these sign approximations concerned us because we more or less knew what our son meant. As your baby develops their fine motor skills, their signs will improve so for the time being just use context to help you figure out what your baby is saying. There will be times when your baby will bring up topics of interest independent of any context – seemingly at random. When this happened, we played the 20-question game and through trial and error, figured out exactly what he meant. Pre-verbal babies will often have a receptive language that will permit you to call out various words and through their reaction, tell you if you’ve guess correctly. My son would emit a small vocal grunt when we correctly guessed his sign intention. This made playing the game more conclusive.
Above: Pat the head with a palm open and down to make the ASL sign for HAT.
As you decipher your baby’s meaning, watch for gaze direction since your baby will usually be looking at or pointing toward what he is talking about. Signs such as BALL, HURT and SHOES all appear similar because it brings the hands close together at the mid-section of the body. In this case, you would simply look at the context in which the sign appears. Is your baby interested in going outside, this might means he’s signing SHOES, if he’s crying perhaps he’s HURT himself or maybe he lost the BALL under the couch.
Remember that baby’s notice and hear things around us that we habitually tune out. It’s amazing the number of times my son picks up a DOG barking when I’m not paying attention, or an AIRPLANE flying overhead.
Other times, your baby might be use signs totally incorrectly – which was occasionally the case with my son. When my son had reached 100 signs, he would often go through a series of signs as we called out verbally what he was signing. Many signs were brought up in various contexts too, making things even more difficult. My son might pat his chest for MONKEY making it seem like he wanted HELP, or vice versa. Then again, he might pat his chest for the sign for DOG, since it too, involves a patting motion. At 17 months, he’d even try to make up his own signs. He’d put his finger into his cheek and we’d be totally dumbfounded. Naturally, we’d acknowledge his signing attempt and explain to him that we had no idea what he wanted or was talking about. In most cases we could resolve the issue by asking him to “show us what he meant.” He then had the opportunity to take us by the hand and point to what he was talking about.
Above: In the ASL sign for MONKEY the hands curve upwards near the arm pits and move up and down as if scratching the sides.
Avoid getting frustrated by incorrect signs, and certainly don’t ignore the sign, just because it’s not perfect. When you know what your baby is saying, you will just say “yes” and then do the sign yourself correctly, without making it a big deal. Babies don’t have the best motor coordination, so plenty of signs will look the same at first. When signs are added quickly and at younger ages, the signs often look alike. Often the first sign learned becomes meaning for many things, but don’t be worried or alarmed, as time passes, your baby will add more signs.