At last I’m getting round to writing a post about babysigning. I guess by now I should really call it ‘toddlersigning’ as my baby is no longer a baby. Even though I’m a researcher in linguistics (with my PhD specifically in phonetics), I’d not heard of the concept of baby signing until I did a taster session at a baby and toddler group that Andrew and I used to go to when I was on maternity leave – the session was when he was about 4 months old. The lady who did the session runs a babysigning business in Cambridge (called Cambridge Babysigning), and I was so interested in what we did during the taster session that I went along to five classes (run by another tutor by then because she was on maternity leave) about this time last year, when Andrew was about 8 months old. We really enjoyed the classes, and we learnt lots of very useful signs. But not long after we did the classes I went back to work, and although I don’t work on the day of the classes, I found that it was quite a commitment to pay for ongoing classes when I wasn’t sure that we would definitely make it each week with fewer days to fit things in. I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m a linguist, and generally pick up languages relatively quickly, but I felt like I’d learnt enough in those five weeks, plus I bought a couple of books to reinforce what I’d learnt, that I’d got a good enough start to give it a go and use signs with Andrew on a daily basis.
I’m no expert on baby signing, but from what I heard at the classes and what I’ve read, the idea is that babies can use their hands to communicate much earlier than they can use their mouths to produce accurate speech sounds that we recognise as words: the motor skills involved in signing come earlier than the fine motor skills needed for saying words. The idea is not that they become reliant on their hands and therefore don’t ‘bother’ with speech, but rather the signing helps them bridge the gap between not speaking and speaking, so that they can communicate their needs and feelings before they develop accurate speech, without getting frustrated so easily. It’s not that you sign to them full sentences (like you would with a deaf person), but rather individual key words as you’re talking, and then they pick up these signs over time, and eventually use them themselves to communicate. You wouldn’t expect a child to start with full sentences in their speech development – if they say just ‘dog’ for example, it’s pretty clear from context that they’re saying something like ‘there’s a dog’ or ‘I’ve seen a dog’, or if they say ‘drink’, it’s pretty clear that they’re actually saying ‘I’d like a drink’. It’s the same for signing – if Andrew signs the word ‘milk’, for example, I know that he’d like some milk – he doesn’t have to sign ‘I’d like some milk’.
So we started off using a few basic signs like ‘milk’, ‘food’, ‘drink’, ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’ when he was 8 months old. It’s recommended that you start with just a few key ones, and then gradually introduce more as they get the hang of signing themselves. He started to use the ‘milk’ one first, and that was around 12 months old. It varies as to how long each child picks up signing, just like any developmental step. I remember the lady who did the taster session saying that her daughter took quite a while to do her first sign, even though she’d had constant exposure to them from an early age, whereas other children in the class were quicker to use their first signs. But once she’d started, she was quick to use more and more – that kind of developmental pattern, where there’s nothing much for ages and then all of a sudden it all comes in a big rush, is seen in speech too. Over the next few months, Andrew picked up a few more, like ‘food’ and (these were the best for us) ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ – he signed those words much sooner than he said them (he’s only just started saying them in the past few weeks).
He’s also very keen on animal signs, like ‘cow’, ‘duck’, ‘bird’, ‘sheep’, all of which are accompanied by the appropriate noise (like ‘moo’ etc.). I think his favourite at the moment is ‘aeroplane’, which is still just the sign, no spoken word/noise attached to it; he signs that whenever he sees or even hears a plane (or even a motorbike or something that sounds like a plane to him!!) It was a trip to an airfield and a farm recently that inspired me to finally get round to finishing this post, which had been half-written for a while, because he did lots of very enthusiastic signing on that day out! Granny and Grandad are pleased that he can sign for them, as is Grandma, though all of them have the same sign (names are signed with the first letter, so in their case it’s all ‘G’), and he doesn’t need to do the sign for Pop (his fourth grandparent) because that’s easy enough for him to say, whereas the other three are trickier. To see some of these signs in action (both Andrew and I), here’s a link to a video of us doing some signing, as a video shows the signs much better than the photos in this post, which don’t capture the movement. This is particularly important for the aeroplane sign, his favourite, so here’s a link to a separate video for this, taken when we visited the airfield.
It’s interesting that, just like early speech, his signs are not exactly like we show him, but are near enough that we can understand. For example, ‘mummy’ is three fingers on your dominant (in my case, right) hand tapped twice against your forehead; Andrew rather more enthusiastically hits the side of his head with his whole palm, but I know that this means mummy, from when he first did it and continues to do it, now with ‘mumma’ attached. Some signs he’s very accurate at though, like bird, which is the thumb and index finger opening and closing together, to mimic a bird’s opening and closing beak. Below are some pictures of me doing some signs, so hopefully you can see the difference between my signs and his signs!
Until Andrew actually started doing his first signs, I wasn’t sure whether what we were doing with signing was particularly useful. It took a few months to really appreciate that our effort had paid off. Once he started using them, it was obvious that this was a great way for him to communicate, and it hasn’t stopped him learning to speak words, if anything it’s helped him to make that connection between objects/actions and the word that goes with them. I think for us, it’s also been useful from the point of view of introducing more than one spoken language to him. For lots of objects/actions I’ve been telling him the English, French and German word, and by signing too, he can, I hope, make the connection that all four are related. This seems to be working so far at least. So I guess he’s really having quadrilingual rather than trilingual input! He’s not yet ready to say the word ‘aeroplane’ in any language it seems, but he’s totally obsessed with signing whenever he hears or sees one, many times every day – quite often I haven’t even heard it until he signs, because they are just in the background noise to me, whereas he seems to be particularly sensitive at spotting them. And when I ask him in any of the three spoken languages ‘where’s the aeroplane?’ (or any question involving ‘aeroplane’), he enthusiastically signs, showing that he’s made the connection between the three spoken words and the sign. Amazing!
A great way to use signs and reinforce them over and over again is by singing songs and signing along to them. I reckon that’s why he’s picked up the animal ones so quickly – because there are songs like Old MacDonald Had a Farm and other classics involving animals that we sing all the time at groups and at home, and I sign along whenever we do (even though I probably look slightly odd at groups where no other parent is signing – I’m a linguist, I’m totally up for having a go at languages even if I look silly, it’s the trying that counts!) It’s not all about singing though; I mean I don’t sing to him when it’s time for food! There are quite a few everyday signs like ‘food’, ‘drink’ and ‘nappy’ that I just use every time we do that word – which is quite often, as you can imagine.
I’m very glad that we came across babysigning when we did, as I feel it has definitely been a positive, helpful and fun thing for all three of us, as well as other family members, to use. Andrew does sometimes get frustrated, like lots of toddlers, usually when he doesn’t get his way with something, but I think it could be a lot worse at 18 months because I’m sure there is less communication-related frustration than if we hadn’t signed. Of course I will never know for sure on this, but from our experience, I’d recommend giving it a go. With baby number 2, we’ll be signing around them from birth, so it will be interesting to see whether he/she picks things up quicker than Andrew did, or not. I guess second children have a different experience from first children with so many things, like speech and walking (because they have an older sibling to ‘copy’ and try and be like), and signing is just another example of this.
I get the feeling that babysigning is becoming more and more popular these days. Have you given it a go? How have you found it? What does your little one make of it so far? I’d love to hear from anyone who has used or intends to use it. I’ve heard that it can be particularly important for children with learning difficulties or special needs, so I’d be interested to hear more about it from that perspective. I hope what I’ve written is interesting and informative if you hadn’t heard of babysigning before. Like I said, I’m no expert, but would be happy to answer more specific questions about our experience if you have any.