Which signs are bad to start with? – A primer on complicated signs

An ASL purist is going to tell you to just sign all the words and hope they all stick. However, this program is for hearing babies, and in most cases you’re not going to be signing right through into your baby’s toddler years. If you do plan on signing well into your 2nd and 3rd year and beyond, just keep in mind that you will want to save these sign types for later. The aim of this topic is to point out which signs are more difficult for a young baby to pick up, and ones that will be of use to older babies.


Above: Make the ASL sign for HELICOPTER as follows – 1. The “5” hand is held palm down quivering as it is moved upward by the index finger of the opposite hand. 2. The “5” hand is quivered over the lower “3” hand and pushed upward.

I will say that none of the signs in ASL are too complicated for a person to do, however some signs look nothing like the thing they are meant to represent making them harder to recall. Once you get past the basic signs in ASL, the rest of them would start to look the same. This is why ASL generally uses more complicated gestures for more complicated things. In English the words also become more complicated as the level of sophistication needed to use them properly increases. So while you might want to teach complicated signs anyway, you should also consider delaying them to a later age especially if you want results quickly.

You’ll notice that the baby sign language dictionary included with this course purposely contains only signs that matter to babies and young toddlers. We haven’t included a full list of ASL words for the expressed reason that babies just won’t learn that many words, and there’s no sense in jumbling-up all of the words just to be complete. So all the words in the dictionary are fair game to teach, but not all are equally easy to sign. I hope you’re catching what I’m throwing here!

The complicated signs will be picked up receptively though, meaning that upon hearing the word and seeing them signed, your baby will understand them, however they probably won’t sign them back. If they do though, they’ll appear as very unrefined approximations. For example, the sign for MOM and DAD where the thumb comes to the chin and temple respectively are easy to do, the sign for GRANDMA and GRANPA which adds an additional bounce from the chin and temple respectively is much more complicated and so a younger baby won’t likely do these signs well. GRANDMA and GRANDPA are that much more complicated than MOM and DAD. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t sign GRANMA and GRANDPA, it just means you should start with MOM and DAD first and expect less clarity with the more complicated signs. Further to this, while your baby might sign AIRPLANE fairly well by reaching into the sky (minus the proper “I love you” handshape), they probably won’t do the sign for HELICOPTER all that well which involves placing the hand palm down quivering on top of the index finger of the opposite hand which is held horizontally in the “3” handshape. Obviously the sign for HELICOPTER is much more complicated!

Above: Courtney explains how sign approximations apply in baby sign language.

Signs for colours are also difficult for a baby to grasp and not just because of the movements involved but because colours themselves are advanced topics that babies simply don’t easily understand. While you peruse the baby sign language dictionary, the signs which require specific handshapes and complex movements should be reserved for older babies and toddlers. Once you get the handle on signing, you’ll develop an instinct for the signs that work best for you and your baby. Who knows, you might have a signing genius on your hands, and be barely able to keep up!

Above: Courtney and Holden working on ASL signs for colours: BLACK, RED, PURPLE, BLUE, ORANGE, WHITE, GREEN, YELLOW and PINK. Passing the blocks onto your baby along with your praise is enough reward to learn colours.

In the end though, if the sign is found in the sign language dictionary, then it’s fair game to be taught. All of the signs have been carefully chosen for the interests and usefulness that they have to your baby.

Above: All about COLOURS!

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