The time will come and your baby will flap their arms or smack their hands together and you’ll think to yourself, “Did my baby just make their first sign?” Chances are good that they have so long as it’s within context, and as mentioned before, if it looks even close to a sign then reward it quickly and with enthusiasm! Babies only very rarely perform signs perfectly, and not just at first, but for a long time after they have begun to sign. Just like speaking takes time to become refined, so too does signing. When your baby first starts to talk, the word “bottle” is probably going to sound like “Bah” and while they’re at it, they’ll probably use it for “blanket” too! Your baby’s first signs will appear as approximation to the signs you’ve been modeling to them. First signs will be their best version of the sign based on their level of comprehension and their fine motor skills. Don’t get hung up on trying to teach them the exact right sign. This is important! Allow your baby’s signs to improve over time. Reward and celebrate their efforts and then do what any parent should do when baby isn’t perfect, continue to model the correct sign yourself each and every time you or your baby uses the sign.
Above: We start by “spinning the wheels” with MILK and WATER, oops! He gets it right in the end! While the correct sign for WATER is with the “W” handsign (index, middle and ring-finger to the lips) a sign approximation of one finger is good enough for us! With time and practice your baby’s sign clarity will improve. But for now, encourage any and all efforts.
Don’t feel like you have to change sign language to suite your baby’s needs either. You wouldn’t start calling everything “Bah” just to make it easier for your baby to talk, would you? Okay, well some of us do think it’s cute that baby is talking and calling everything “bah” and we might even adopt these terms with them without much harm. However, it’s not going to teach them how to do the proper word, and the same goes for signing. So while your baby should be permitted to continue with their sign approximation, you should model the correct sign yourself as a follow up. Eventually, your baby is going to do the sign just as good as you do.
Sign clarity improves with time as your baby’s fine motor skills improve.
Sign approximations will be different for every baby and depend on their age, but it might help if I describe a few sign approximations for you. The sign for MORE for example, will usually appear as hands coming together in some subtle way, however one finger might also come to touch the open palm of the other. Another variation of the MORE sign is hands clapping. When my son finally did the sign for RAISIN, he did it by tapping his index finger against the back of his hand. The actual sign is pretty close by requires the middle finger be crossed over the index finger before tapping the back of the hand. ALL DONE can appear as arms flapping instead of a brushing motion as if pushing something away with both hands. Later, my son abbreviated the entire affair by opening and closing his hands which appeared more like MILK, although we still understood what he meant. His sign for BEAR is hands scratching at his chest. He has the height and action correct, but he doesn’t cross his arms over his chest like he should! The sign for APPLE often appears with some variation of the hand to the cheek with the twisting motion of the closed fist omitted. It’s hard for a baby to twist their hand. You see, don’t expect miracles! If you understand what your baby means, then the sign is right for you!
So here are the rules when it comes to sign approximation:
1) Some signs in ASL are complicated so cut your baby some slack, they’re just doing the best they can!
2) A baby will use sign approximations when they first start signing, you should always encourage and reward these efforts.
3) As children age, and their fine motor skills improve, they will naturally get more clear with their signs.
4) Modeling the sign correctly yourself is the most important part of creating proper signing with your baby.
5) Don’t think you have to simplify ASL for your baby. You wouldn’t simplify talking for them, and by the same token, signing shouldn’t be simplified either.
Above: Courtney explains how sign approximations apply in baby sign language.