Sign language isn’t rocket science, thankfully, but it does involve some very important techniques which must be followed to be successful. Even if you aren’t totally diligent in sticking to these rules, chances are excellent that your baby will still learn to sign. Your level of dedication to the rules will determine how fast your baby will get it. Obviously, the more you put in, the more you get out (and in contrast, garbage in, garbage out!).
Here is the short list of the most important techniques in teaching baby sign language:
1. The first key to teaching baby sign language is to use repetition. A lot of repetition. Did you catch that? I said, in order to teach sign language to your baby you need to constantly be repeating yourself, only in slightly different ways each time. Let me say this again, just in a different context. If you don’t sign over and over again to your baby, they won’t pick up sign language! There I said it, over and over again. See how this works on you? By repeating yourself, your baby not only discovers patterns emerging, but is also provided with several examples of how to do the sign, and what doing the sign means to them. Eventually, after doing the sign in the proper context, your baby will be able to figure out exactly which word you are signing versus other words that accompany the word in your spoken sentence – be it an object, food, action, manner, feeling, or whatever else. Whatever signs you are teaching should be repeated many different ways at least 20-30 times each day, and every day, until your baby picks them up and starts using them on their own. After that, you can cut back on how often you use them, but you still must use them fairly regularly, lest they be forgotten. It’s one of those use it or lose it things. In order to grow your baby’s vocabulary, they need to build on what they know, instead of simply exchanging them for other words as you move forward.
2. Signs must be done before, during, and after a task in order to properly reinforce the sign. That means, when you are going to do a DIAPER change and you want to teach the sign for it, you will say something like “Baby, it’s time to change your DIAPER, so come to Mom and we’ll change your DIAPER.” Once you start changing the diaper say “This is why we change baby’s DIAPER, it’s so dirty, let’s get a fresh one.” After you are done changing the diaper change say something like “There you go, we’re all done and your DIAPER is nice and dry.” Naturally, you will do the sign for DIAPER each and every time you say the word.
Diaper: The ASL sign for DIAPER is done with the hands held at the hips and the index, middle and thumb opened and closed several times as if opening diaper pins.
3. Signs must be done in as many different contexts as possible and done throughout the day. Additionally, signs must be done within the proper context. For example, you wouldn’t sign ELEPHANT while giving your baby a BATH, unless of course there was a toy elephant in the tub! If you have ELEPHANT prints on a pair of pants, or have elephant pictures, then by all means do the sign for ELEPHANT. This goes for any sign, be it BIRD, EAT, MILK, or whatever. Only do the sign if you have or can get the object quickly to reinforce the idea. If you don’t, the information will be lost or confused with other messages. The more ways you can show a sign the better. This helps your baby figure out patterns in their new and complicated environment. Repetition builds comfort and security in your baby through predictability and also helps build strong neural pathways in their mind. It is these pathways that will eventually hold signs for recall later.
4. Always be consistent with signing. In other words, once you start using a sign, continue. You must teach your baby to sign through example, so if you drop signs on occasion or start and stop signing, then your baby will learn that signing is optional. The most successful signing parents are the ones who continue to use signs alongside their baby once they have been introduced. Remaining consistent is one of the most important factors to being successful in teaching babies to sign.
5. Always say the words whenever you sign them, and sign the words whenever you say them. You must lead by example. If you sometimes forget, don’t worry, it’s not going to cause harm. However, you can only reasonably expect your baby to sign back as long as you, yourself, are using the signs. Remember that you are trying to move your baby toward speaking, so they need to learn how to say the words too. The more times they hear the words, the greater the chances that they will be learned.
6. Always model the correct sign for your baby whenever you say the word. You are the teacher and your baby is keenly watching you to take the lead even if he pretends otherwise. “Modeling” helps your baby learn to sign accurately and corrects their early sign approximations. As their fine motor skills improve, so will their signs, looking more and more like yours. If you frequently forget to do the signs, then your baby will too! This might lead to whining, screaming, kicking or other outbursts!
7. When you teach signs make sure your baby is paying attention and can actually see what your hands are doing. This means you need to sign in your baby’s field of vision. If you aren’t sure, go down to your baby’s level by sitting on the floor facing them directly or raise them to your level by putting them in their highchair. Next, make sure your baby is looking at you instead of at the object, or even the other way. Signing only works if your baby can see the signs!
8. When teaching signs be very animated and use exaggerated facial expressions. Couple this with appropriate body language. If you really want to keep your baby’s attention then this is the way to do it. It might seem silly at first, but if you don’t show enthusiasm for the task, then why would your baby? Overact by using your whole body including your hands, arms, legs, fingers, even your knees to bounce up and down. Reducing body motion is a way to “hide in plain sight,” which is a great way to be forgotten – the last thing you want to do when teaching signs. Instead, become the center of attention. This is sign language after all, and like silent movies, it’s all you’ve got to work with so make best use of all your features! Use big movements to draw attention to yourself, use questioning faces, expressive smiles, and so forth, all the while entertaining your audience. If it’s really not your personality, then don’t worry; you are still your baby’s primary role model and your baby will look up to you and pick up your signs no matter what. When doing signs for emotions always use the proper facial expressions. When you say NO, use a stern face, when signing HAPPY, put on a smile. Don’t hide your emotions or use expressionless faces and expect your baby to understand what you mean. In other words, teach them emotional integrity and emotional intelligence.
Above: The flat hand with palm down pats the chest repeatedly with an upward stroking movement. Think of happy thoughts bubbling up as you make the ASL sign for HAPPY.
9. Always reward any and all attempts at a sign, especially first signs. By becoming very, very excited it shows your baby that they are on the right track and gives them incentive to continue to sign. To show your excitement clap your hands excitedly, use an excited tone of voice, smile big and say “yeaahh!” You don’t have to get overly excited every time your baby does a sign, but the first one or two should be noted with extra praise. Never scold your child or show disappointment when they don’t get it. I promise you that they are doing the very best that they can.
10. Always reward sign approximations no matter how vague. Your baby is probably not going to make a perfect sign from the start (and might never do so before giving up signing altogether). You’re going to have to reward signs that are pretty close, but not exactly correct. Over time, and as you model the correct version, your baby’s “sign clarity” will improve. With time, your baby’s motor skills will also become more developed permitting them to do more complex movements.
11. Never show disappointment with your baby. I promise you that your baby isn’t trying to spite your efforts and really is sincerely doing the very best that he can. Never try to push or cajole your baby into signing as this will just sour his efforts and diminish the likelihood that he will take to signing. You are your baby’s primary role model and he will soak up everything that you do, right down to your temper tantrums, so keep the experience clean and positive!
12. If possible, enlist other family members, friends, and your baby’s siblings to help in the sign language process. This shows your baby that communication spans all people, and at the same time, your child will get exposed to many lessons in many contexts and in many different ways. Each person will put a slightly different spin on the lesson reinforcing communication’s main purpose. A nice side benefit to enlisting others’ help is that the burden on you is on making the experience much more enjoyable.
13. Whenever your baby makes a sign, acknowledge it. Never ignore signing or pretend it never happened. I know, we’re all busy, but you wouldn’t ignore an adult if they spoke to you, even if they did make an unreasonable request! Okay, well maybe you would, but it would still be rude! When your baby signs COOKIE or RAISIN and you don’t want to give them any, don’t have one, or it’s not snack time yet, you can do one of two things. You can ignore it like it never happened, or you can take the time to explain how it’s not snack time and they’ll have to wait until later. Let’s hope you choose the former option rather than the latter as I sincerely believe that even young toddlers are capable of reasoning when given a proper explanation. When your baby makes the effort to communicate, you should always acknowledge that you’ve understood them at a minimum. What you do afterwards will either teach them that they get whatever they want, or that life sometimes requires self-discipline and patience, which is a valuable lesson in and of itself.
14. Don’t give up, be patient, enjoy the moment, and have fun! This is pretty straight forward, isn’t it? It’s not going to happen overnight and the results are only a small part of the overall process. Signing is a journey, not just a destination and even if your baby is not signing back, he is still learning and progressing. Trust me. Yes it’s nice to get feedback, but this will come with time.