This is a very common question for new signers. The answer to the question of whether or not babies should learn homesigns, or signs as part of an actual sign language such as ASL has evolved somewhat over recent years. The current consensus, and the one we subscribe to, is to use ASL exclusively. A form of homesigns and even specific baby signs were originally developed in earlier baby sign language programs because it was thought that a baby, and their parents, required signs that were simplified due to a babies limited fine motor skills. ASL contains many words that require movements that most babies find difficult, if not impossible to do correctly. Take the sign for HELP by example, which requires a baby to make a thumbs up handshape with a closed fist, dropping it down onto the opposite hand palm-up, and then raising both together. For this reason, the sign for HELP has been modified by some programs, this one included, to two open hands patting the chest to make it easy for babies to do. Other programs have modified nearly all the signs to make them easier and more natural for a baby to do.
As a general rule, babies find doing two opposing movements at the same time very difficult. Think about how child proof cupboard locks work, which usually requires a clamping action combined with twisting or pulling action to release it. These locks keep all but the most motivated toddlers from gaining entry.
This baby sign language course does not advocate using homesigns or using signs other than ASL, however. The reason for this is that most signs in ASL are fairly easily reproduced by babies, and the more difficult ones will be approximated by babies. When signs aren’t perfect, their meaning will be made obvious by the context in which they appear. A lot of the words that are important in baby-life are easy enough to sign, or at least approximate, and this includes each of the 350 or so listed in this course.
In the end, just like how you wouldn’t dumb down verbal language, there’s no need to do the same for sign language. If sign language lessons are continued into toddler years, and the proper signs are continuously modeled for them, then the clarity of the signs will also improve lockstep with their fine motor skills. For now though, and for most babies, their sign approximations will be just fine. When a baby first starts to speak, they often use “ba-ba” for many different things like blanket, bottle, bath and so forth. It’s the context that will give baby’s meaning away. Just like we wouldn’t adopt a baby’s word approximation for our own use, we don’t adopt a babies sign approximation either. Instead, we excitedly praise them so as to encourage their efforts, and then model the correct sign for them.
Above: Courtney explains how sign approximations apply in baby sign language.
Another reason to use ASL over homesigns is that ASL is a real language, a second language if you will. It can become practical throughout life especially if your child is around other deaf children, whereas homesigns will only be useful in the household among family members or family friends sort of like a secret code. If you value ease of signing, and you don’t mind that others won’t understand the signs you baby makes, then by all means introduce your own signs, there’s certainly nothing wrong with this. Lots of parents will use funny and creative names for various thinks like “ba-ba” for special blankets and so forth. Homesigns can be fun and be an exercise in creativity for both of you, and you’ll be surprised by how quickly your baby will be teaching you new signs!
If you do decide to go with homesigns over ASL, just remember precisely what signs you’ve agreed on, and what they mean. If you forget what your child is signing, then he might become discouraged and frustrated. Homesigns, like ASL needs to be rigid in order to remain useful. If a baby gets lazy and starts modifying the homesign, all your signs might start to look the same! It’s not unusual for a baby to come up with their own signs once they figure out that their hands can talk, and it will be up to you to correct these signs or praise them, and encourage them, and eventually adopting them yourself. However, do note that there is no reason you should stop yourself from correcting a baby by modeling the proper sign, it’s a normal part of learning after all!
Homesigns can also be confusing for caregivers especially daycares who are become more and more proficient in using ASL. How frustrating is it for your baby to be around other people and for them to not understand what your baby is trying to say. ASL is very common and works as a great base for communicating to more than just a few people. If you’ve already started a few homesigns and decide at a later time that you want to change them, don’t fret, it can be done, although not as easily as just starting with the correct signs initially. Babies are tremendously adaptable, so if you suddenly change something on them, they’ll eventually pick it up. Whatever you do though, try to keep the more important signs like DIAPER, MILK, EAT and so forth from ASL since these will be helpful to others when you aren’t around.
The bottom line is that it’s really up to you to decide. Some will prefer to teach something practical that can be used throughout life to speak to the deaf or disabled and others will want to teach something to bond with their child and make life just a little bit easier. The main message is that some ASL signs are complicated to do, but this is no reason to try to simplify the language for them since they won’t be afforded this luxury when it comes to spoken language either. In the end, if you are going to be putting in a bunch of effort into teaching your baby to sign, why not teach them a real language that can be useful in more than one context. Besides, you’re learning the signs too, why not build a second language at the same time!