Deaf Education, General Teaching Topics, Regular Education

Babies and Sign Language – A Wonderful Combination

When working with children who have hearing loss you will discover there is a variety of communication modality options – Sign Language (American Sign Language OR English Sign Language), Auditory-Oral, Auditory-Verbal, Total Communication, etc. We will be expanding more on these options in the future, but for now I would like to highlight one modality in particular and discuss some of the basics about how infants learn language.

For most of 2016 I worked as an Early Intervention Therapist for infants who had hearing loss and their families. Sign language was a hot topic with almost every family I worked with. Most families viewed it as a positive addition to the communication strategies we were implementing. Some families were told by other professionals that sign language was pointless or that it would be too confusing in top of learning spoken English. Some families struggled to see the benefit of utilizing it so their child may begin working on language skills. Everyone has their own opinion and preferences for their family and I completely respect that as any good Early Interventionist would. However, there are some popular misconceptions about sign language that I feel need to be clarified and shared so that families are better informed before dismissing the idea of sign language altogether.

The main point about sign language that I would like to help support and spread awareness of is that sign language is a positive communication tool and modality and can be extremely beneficial for almost any child.

I have heard from many people within family circles, friend circles and professional circles –

“They won’t learn how to talk if we teach them how to sign”

“They have a few spoken words, teaching them signs now will just be too confusing for them”

“He/She is too young and can’t understand what I am doing. He/She just thinks I’m waving my hands”

I truly understand where these thoughts are coming from. Based on prior knowledge, these thoughts at one time made sense. In my opinion, however, the culprit of these thoughts is lack of information. I have not conducted any studies, but from what I have read and experienced, sign language works as a positive communication modality for kiddos who have hearing loss and kiddos who have typically developing hearing. As a teacher of both regular education and special education I have also seen sign language at work in the classroom supporting all types of learners – especially visual and tactile learners!

Story Time!

There was a time – years ago – that I met a woman at an event my husband (boyfriend at the time) and I attended and in initial small talk the woman discovered I was in college studying to become a deaf educator. She immediately started signing to me asking if I knew sign language. I replied with an over-the-top excited “yes!” Come to find out, she had taken sign language classes in years past and saw the benefit of infants learning to use sign language in order to communicate wants and needs prior to learning how to talk. Later in life she made it a goal to teach all 5 of her babies to sign. I then asked her the million-dollar-question: “Does your husband sign too?” She laughed and explained that it took her a while to convince him of the benefit, but once he saw it – he quickly learned. I asked if I could meet him and introduce him to my boyfriend. Coincidentally, we found her husband and my boyfriend had already met, so I walked up to them and began signing with the woman’s husband – you should have seen my boyfriends jaw hit the floor as the man carried on a conversation with me in sign language. I asked him to talk to my boyfriend and explain to him, you know man-to-man, why he learned sign language, how it helped him as a father, and how he found it useful to use in his profession! I’ll never forget what he said that day, “Man, when a screaming baby wakes you up at three in the morning do you want to spend forever going through eight combinations of bottle, diaper, rock, sing, etc. until she stops crying, or do you want to walk in, see her sign “milk”, make a bottle and go back to sleep in ten minutes?”

That was a pretty solid argument if you ask me! And it was enough to convince my husband too! He suddenly took an interest in learning some basic everyday signs and has since observed babies use sign language prior to talking and now finds it fascinating. This leads us into some of the basics of Language Learning.

Language Acquisition

In my opinion, the first step to learning language, verbal or manual, is mastering the pragmatics or the rules of communication. I have seen this happen with my nephew, my friends’ children, and infants that I worked with and you have too! We all know that babies are not born with the ability to interact and talk to us on a social level as they have had no exposure to social communication in the womb. (That would be strange…) So in the time, between when they are born and when they use their first word, they are learn how to listen, try to make sense of what they are hearing, observe, and put together the pieces of the social communication puzzle before beginning to experiment with language and formulate their own words /signs.

One of the first skills babies tend to learn in the area of pragmatics is eye contact. In our culture eye contact is one of our top social rules. It is how we can get someone’s attention, hold someone’s attention, and show respect to our communication partner. Next, we as adults begin talking to the infant when they achieve eye contact, modeling pragmatic rule number two: the pattern of conversation or turn taking. We begin talking to them and they begin “answering” us by reacting with a smile, flailing arms/feet, or responding with a vocalization. As they continue to build their communication skills they will begin to babble back and forth but will not quite master actual words for a time. Because they do not have words yet – infants move on to utilize alternative developing skills such as fine and gross motor movements to communicate. You guys know what I am talking about here; you’ve seen the little one communicate to Momma that he “wants that” as he points to a toy, reaches and clenches his fingers like he is grabbing it and staring at her. Or when Dad walks up to baby and she immediately throws her hands up communicating through gesture, “pick me up!”

Babies have more developed physical control of their body movements at this time than control of their mouth and processes utilized to form words. In my opinion, this is the opportune time to teach an infant to use sign language to communicate their wants and needs. They have already been working on the pragmatics learning eye contact and turn taking and they have the physical ability to mimic meaningful gestures and/or sign language vocabulary so why not start pairing meaning to communication actions?! This will help them continue to develop their communication skills, inform you of their wants and needs, and possibly lower everyone’s frustration!

Whether the child has hearing loss or not, they will typically go through the motions of observing language and learning pragmatics, or social rules, first then move onto acquiring the spoken or manual language. Studies have been conducted and have found results stating that teaching infants sign language prior to learning how to talk supports their cognitive, social emotional, language, and behavior development in a positive way. It has also NOT been found to inhibit their ability to learn to talk. (See references below to dig into the research yourself!)

Thoughts and Tips to Consider:

  • You can start using signs with your baby as early as day 1! (Children born to homes utilizing American Sign Language as their Native Language are exposed to Signs the day they are born and grow up learning sign language! It is never too early!)
  • Most children will develop the motor ability to communicate through gesture and mimic simple signs around 8 to 10 months.
  • Start with signs used in everyday routines that will get the child something that they want. It has to be useful to them! ie: milk, more, bottle, pacifier, all-done, etc.
  • Watch for their “babble”. First signs are often approximations so watch for similar gestures in meaningful contexts.
  • Learn signs with your baby. You do not have to become fluent overnight!
  • Use signs while talking to baby, reading, playing, and talking to others so the baby sees the sign used in a meaningful way in multiple contexts and settings.
  • Repetition, Repetition, Repetition! Babies need to see a sign in a meaningful way many many times before they start to make sense of it. So it is okay that they don’t sign back immediately. They wont. Not until they make sense of it and see how it can be useful to them!

If you do some research, observe an infant learning sign language, or decide to jump in and try it out yourself you may see some of these potential benefits:

  • Fewer tantrums/ less fussing & whining
  • Less frustration for parents
  • Mastery of pragmatics at an earlier age
  • May use more words at a younger age
  • May develop higher language skills
  • May understand more words at a younger age
  • May use longer sentences at a younger age
  • May acquire a higher verbal IQ
  • May develop better social skills
  • May have better control of behavior

In my experience sign language has opened my eyes to a beautiful culture and allowed me to explore manual communication in many different formats. I have taught families of infants who have hearing loss sign language and watched it flourish and bring their family together through communication. I have used sign language in Pre-Kindergarten classrooms and watched 3, 4 and 5 year old children light up as they (quickly) pick up on new communication skills.  I have taught toddlers with almost no vocabulary some of their first words and watched their love for learning grow as they gained the ability to communicate. Lastly, I have fostered many amazing friendships by being able to communicate in their native/preferred language. I have experienced sign language in many different formats and scenarios and it has added nothing but positive aspects to my life and the lives around me. So let’s open our mind and our hearts to this beautiful language and watch how it allows us to make more connections and come together.

Please share your thoughts and/or experiences about infants learning sign language below! We would love to hear from you!


For more information on teaching infants sign language, check some of these resources:

(There is a lot of information out there about infants utilizing sign language. We do not claim to be experts, we just wish to spread awareness about Sign Language [both English and American Sign Language] and encourage parents, teachers, and anyone else to learn more about it!)