To be clear, a signed sentence happens anytime a sign follows another within a few seconds. Signing in sentences won’t happen much before 18 months of age, and sometimes even later. Word combinations usually start right around the time your bay will start to speak, and often sentences are word and sign combinations. Signing in sentences is a major milestone and an advanced form of communication. You could say that it is a developmental leap and shows that your baby’s mind is growing and developing.
When your baby starts to speak they will begin with monosyllabic tones then move to intelligible singular words, then to broken sentences, and then finally to proper sentence structures. In the same way, your baby will learn simple signs for words, then combine them with others in their vocabulary to construct more complicated meaning. When your baby does put words together, don’t expect them to be grammatically correct. Usually words will just appear in unison to express some thought.
You can also help your baby along by combining signs into sentences yourself, but ultimately this is something that will click all on its own. In order for signs to appear in sentences, your baby must have a large enough signed vocabulary. Therefore, if signed sentences is one of your goals then just continue to add individual words and eventually everything else will happen naturally.
Above: In the ASL sign for TOYS the fist with thumb protruding between the index and middle finger is shook at the same time chest high with both hands.
Toddlers, and even babies, will usually combine MORE with whatever they want to formulate a primitive sentence. For example, MORE MILK or MORE TOYS, and so forth, becomes a common first sentence. When you first notice your baby using MORE for all things, try to encourage them to describe what it is they want MORE of. This is a great way to move your baby or toddler toward sentences. For example, your baby gets excited when he sees a bag of raisins and you can tell that he wants some. Immediately your baby might sign MORE over and over again and reaching for the raisins. It’s pretty clear what he wants, but you hold back because you want to teach him that he needs to express his wants clearly to others and that he can’t take it for granted that other people will know. You then ask your baby what he wants more of. You can say “What would you like MORE of? Do you want MORE MILK? MORE RAISINS?” Eventually this process will lead to more expressiveness with signs and naturally signed sentences.
There are a few different types of sentences that work well for babies. They are MORE (as mentioned), EAT, PLAY and PLEASE sentences. For example a toddler might sign MORE PLAY, MORE ELEPHANT or MORE BUBBLES, EAT COOKIE or EAT CRACKER, PLAY BALL, PLAY TRUCK, and MILK PLEASE, EAT PLEASE, etc. Babies might even do BALL + PLAY + DAD, HOT + NO + TOUCH or BYE DAD. Since sentences arises near the end of signing’s lifespan and nearing a toddler’s verbal stage, you might also see verbal word and sign combinations as mentioned previously. You baby might say “Dad” and sign BIRD to get Dad’s attention, or sign AIRPLANE + WHERE and then say “Dad” if Dad isn’t paying attention.
Above: He gets pretty excited in this video about signing and life! One of the first sentences he made was LION EAT GIRAFFE. It’s a funny story, but we were watching videos on youtube and a nature one came up. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but we put up a safari video. As I sat next to him, the lions jumped up on the giraffe and took it down before I could stop the video. Holden would probably have rather not watched the video, but it was too late. He was upset, and we had many “conversations” about it later using signs. Had he not known the signs, we would have never known he was so upset by what he saw or been able to talk about it to resolve it. During this conversation he throws in some other words for good measure. It’s funny to actually get inside the mind of a toddler once he’s armed with signs!
Signing in sentences is not something that can be forced along, but you can model signed sentences for your baby and insist that they clarify their wants by adding words in combination. When your baby is ready, sentences will flourish. Just be sure that when you start to teach sign combinations that your baby understands both of the signs individually, and the concepts they are meant to represent.
However signed sentences appear, they are a special milestone and should be recognized. Sentences will happen by themselves when your baby is ready, and they have added enough words to their vocabulary.