Chances are good that your baby’s first attempt at a sign will only be an approximation to the actual sign you’ve been modeling for them. This isn’t the time to drop everything, crouch over your baby and manipulate their little hands into perfection! This is when you want to encourage their early efforts, applaud their attempt, and generally make a big deal about it. This goes for the fact that a sign might be accidental in nature. Even accidental signs can lead to a real sign as you baby aims to discover what the big deal is all about. [Right: This is a sign approximation for PUMPKIN. The toddler is pinching the back of his hand rather than doing the correct version which requires the dominant hand to flick the back of the non-dominant hand – as if testing the ripeness.]
When teaching signs, you are trying to reinforce a sign that is close, but not necessarily exactly correct each and every time a baby signs. With enough practice, and seeing you model the sign for them, it will improve. Children like to see their parents get excited and appreciate the extra attention and praise they get and will want to do things that please them. Jump up and down if it’s in your nature, clap excitedly, use a happy tone of voice, and tell your baby what a good job they are doing. This is even more important if it’s their first try at a sign. You wouldn’t get overly excited each time your baby does a sign, and your baby won’t expect it either, but the first few times are very important to reinforce if you want your baby to continue with the sign.
If a baby seems to be having a hard time doing a sign, it’s because they really are trying their best, but are held back by some physical or developmental milestone. Always give your baby the benefit of the doubt and understand that they are always doing their best no matter what. If your baby can’t get a sign just right, it’s not because they are stupid or trying to be silly or fool around. More often than not, your baby is messing around because they are having problems signing and not actively trying to make you upset. Fooling around is your baby’s way to show you that life isn’t all that serious, and wants you to cool off a little.
Above: In this signing marathon we sign NICE, STRONG, SHAVING, SORRY, HUG, BERRIES, DINOSAUR, SANTA, MOTORCYCLE, POOP, SCARED, FRIES, BROCCOLI, BEAUTIFUL, YOU’RE WELCOME, SLED and KANGAROO.
When my son Holden first tried to do the sign for CHEESE which requires the hands be brought together flat palm to palm, and then turned over the other way and repeated, he would intently watch my hands and bring them together, but I could tell that he couldn’t figure out how I turned them over the other way. I modeled the sign a few times and I could see the “wheels spinning” but he could never quite get the wrist turning thing down. I then helped him by turning his wrists for him. He never did get the sign that day, but I understood that it was hard for him to do it, and we both had fun trying to get the sign right. He still got the cheese though because what was important wasn’t being perfect, it was the effort that mattered. As he grew older his tilted his head back and forth as he did the sign to replace the action of wrist turning. Again, this was his best effort at doing the sign correctly. Just keep all this in mind and give your baby some slack.
Above: Signs are very helpful during mealtime as it gives a toddler the power to make requests for more foods in a specific manner rather than reaching for or whining. When a signer makes the effort to sign for a food, be sure to reward as often as possible especially if your signer is just starting to use the word. Foods are great rewards for the effort needed to learn signs. His sign for CHEESE is his version which is okay. Putting the hands together one way and then reversing is a challenge so he just shakes his head to symbolize hands swapping.
In the second half of the video he asks for GARLIC which looks like CARROTS. But he gets by through repeating the sign and using his best vocalization for garlic to make his desires known. Also notice his manners by saying THANK YOU and his adjective BIG to show what he thinks about the carrots.
Meal times are a great place to teach and learn signs. You always have a captive, motivated audience!
Parents often express concern that their child isn’t sign at all and that they’ve been teaching signs for some time. However, on close inspection signs are in fact being made, they are just very subtle. For example, the sign for MILK is often mistaken for a random hand closing movement. The sign for MORE also appears like hands clapping and often goes unrewarded by novice signers. However, if this appears at the end of a meal, demonstrating proper context, you should seize the moment, get excited, and ask your baby if they want MORE. Even if they don’t repeat the sign, give them MORE of their favourite food anyway. Asking your baby to do a sign again, is a great way to verify if they are really doing a sign to begin with.
Just like verbal language, sign language doesn’t always look perfect form the start, but it’s important to be careful to watch for these sign approximations and reward them early on.
Sometimes a signing parent thinks, but aren’t sure that their baby is signing. If this is the case, they probably are – so just go with it! But if not, then baby is probably getting very close, so this should be rewarded regardless. When you get excited your baby is going to want to know what the big deal is all about and do it again, and with more enthusiasm, the next time. There are times when a sign spontaneously appears such as the sign for EAT. So long as it is in context and you feel the baby understands the sign, yet it is out of snack or near a meal, you might still reward the sign just to reinforce it. You want your baby to understand the applications of sign language so providing the reward makes it much more likely to reoccur.