I have really been curious about baby sign language since the first time I heard about it. Most of the time, when I ask parents about whether they tried to learn and teach baby sign language, they said they tried but abandoned quite quickly.
I am very happy to have 3 parents, Sylvain, Clair and Lucile who commit to baby sign language telling us more about it.
Sylvain, Software cloud Architect
Assumed doting father & VR enthusiast
👶🏻 1 child (2yo)
🇫🇷 Sainghin-en-Weppes (near Lille), France
It’s a friend of mine who told me first about baby sign language. He told me he could not wait to communicate with his baby that way. I was hooked.
I was also curious to know how Sylvain, Clair and Lucile had the idea to communicate with sign language with their child.
I've always wanted to learn sign language, and I’ve read some studies/testimonials and books about how sign languages may help the child with communication, frustration, and general growth
I hadn’t really thought about it too much before my kid was born. But then I saw our nanny doing it with her and I remembered reading something somewhere that babies pick up sign really quickly. So I thought we might give it a try
During my first pregnancy, I read about sign language for babies. I thought it was a good idea
Learning before teaching
I know nothing about sign language yet. I am starting to watch Little Bun Bao videos. I learned few words so far, “Teddy” (“doudou” in French) and “bath” words.
Did you know sign language before starting? How did you start?
I didn’t know sign language. I started with LittleBunBao’s videos and application (on iOS). Also, the Nanny we chose with my wife already knew sign language and helped us to learn basic words, understandable to babies such as “again”, “forbidden”, “dangerous”, “please”, “thank you” and “I love you”
I used to be fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). When I was in high school I was in a play1, where I played the deaf lead. I went through an intensive education from a professional interpreter such that I could learn all of my lines for the show and then communicate (at least somewhat) with deaf audience members afterwards. I really developed a passion for it. By the time I got to college (University of Michigan) in 1993, I found out that there were no courses in ASL or other forms of sign language, despite having a secondary language requirement. ASL was recognized as fulfilling the requirement, but it was on me to find a professor who would sign off on the form saying that I met 2-year proficiency. Fortunately I found someone in the Department of Social Work who tested and passed me. I also spent summers hanging out with some of the deaf college students who interned on campus with the hearing institute at the hospital. They were the ones who gave me my sign name. With the help of these friends and the professor, I became a strong advocate for the university providing classes, which I believe they do today
When E. wasn’t talking too much between 1 and 18 month, I sought it would be a good idea to follow lessons on sign language to encourage him to talk and to be proactive (I’m a teacher, I know how being a good speaker is important). It was really great because it was a family activity we could do together. We had 5 lessons on vocabulary like food or hygiene or play. We learned songs also. That really encouraged us to sign to him. He goes to a kindergarten where some people would also sign. We love “more” which is really useful, “water” or “snail” as in the song “Petit escargot”
From what I read, it’s always a great moment of joy when your kid signs back.
How long after you started to communicate with sign language did your kids answer back? How old was he or she? How did you feel?
We’ve been communicating since he was born. He didn't respond at first but only watched. The important part for me is either to tell the word you sign, or doing the action, then signing, and repeat. Then one day, he started to sign “again” after his lunch (ok, a special version of his own, but still understandable). He was 1 year old when he started to use the good sign with the meaning. I was confused at first as it’s been a year of signs without any feedback, and I admit that I didn’t recognize the sign first. It was our Nanny that told us. After that, I was (and still is) a proud doting daddy !
I think she was about 6-8 months old. I didn’t recognize it at first, but our nanny did. She signed “milk."
He began after several months to say “more”. I would say around 14 months old. He really needed to walk before speaking. Then it took us some time for him to use other signs. After we did our lessons, he learned lots of other signs. But really fast after learning a new sign he would learn the word and then stop using the sign to use the word. But not for “more. He did use it long after 2 years old
Difference between kids
Teaching is always a unique experience.
Was it different to teach your first kid compared to your second? What were the differences?
I’ve begun to teach L. and I know now that perseverance is the key but with 2 kids, it’s more difficult for me to sign. I try to use as much as I can “more”, “changing your diaper”, “poop”, one ou two animals and songs but that’s all. She did catch “more” at 9 months old. What is really funny is that I do the sign, my eldest will catch it and then he repeats it to my youngest
Is your partner also using sign language with your kids?
My wife’s also using sign language. And clearly it was a real helper for me because our son always sees sign language when we communicate with him, so he doesn’t have to adapt between sign comprehension and oral comprehension. (Also, it helps a lot when you forgot a sign !)
No, he isn’t/didn’t
He does. I think it is really important, so it is clear for the baby
Day to day communication
The best part
What do you like most about communicating with sign language?
As signing is easier for our son to do than speaking, it became natural for him to sign (or try to sign when he doesn’t know the real one) when he wants to communicate. Still, that doesn’t prevent him from learning to speak. At 2 he’s only starting, but sometimes the sign helps when the speech can’t. For example, a few months ago he started to cry after he played with something and when we asked him if he was angry, he said yes, but he was signing “scared”. We knew that he was in fact scared of being too close to the vacuum-cleaner. As he learned to sign before speaking he was able to tell us what he wanted/felt, we were able to calm him down and reduce anger and frustration episodes
Sign language is VERY expressive! Much more so than spoken language. There are words in sign that don’t have any translation and yet convey much more feeling
I like that you can communicate with your kid earlier than with words. It is also something you can do to encourage your kid to communicate. He learns that each word means something. It also enhances comprehension when you read books
The hardest part
What’s the hardest thing you’d think of?
It’s clearly patience. It takes more than a year of practice before getting at least one sign back. Sometimes we’re discouraged but you have to continue, to be sure that he learns
It takes constant practice. I stopped signing after I left college. I regret that and feel that I have lost a lot. I am not fluent anymore. We also eventually stopped signing with my daughter and she has lost the few words she knew as well
Being consistent. Doing it when you are tired or under stress
And then, spoken language comes
Did you stop communicating with sign language once they were able to speak?
At 2, we continue to communicate using both spoken and sign languages, we are not considering stopping for the moment. We use French Sign Language so this may help him later
We stopped when she was able to speak, sort of. However, I started to volunteer at her preschool to teach her class sign language once/week
When he was making small sentences, we stopped. Because at this point, he responded, so it went quicker to just speak. Apart with animals: I continue to use the signs when I’m playing with him and trying to make him guess some animals
The basic words
On average, how many words do you know and use in sign language?
Hum… That’s a hard question. In 2 years I have learned a lot of words, even complete nursery rhymes !
I think somewhere around 5ish: “Please,” “Thank you/You’re Welcome,” “Water,” “Milk,” “More,” “I love you,” and maybe a few others
I would say around 20? I learned lots of animals. “More” “water” “changing your diaper” “poop” “thank you” “please” “like” “angry” “eat” “bear” “snail” “snake” “wolf” “fox”
I am reading a book about sign language and I came upon a story of a parent saying that they would say “I love you” to each other every morning when dropping the kid off at school with sign language as a secret sign nobody else would understand.
Do you also use secret signs?
We don’t have “secret signs”, but a 2yo kid can not sign as perfectly as an adult, so some signs may only be recognized by his mom and me (like “please”: in FSL is a light touch on the cheek and with my son is more like a big slap ! Or “I love you” which should be your hand on your heart then towards the exterior, but with my son is more like a “bro-check” on the heart)
We definitely use “I love you” whenever we are trying to convey that sentiment through windows or dropping off at school or something
No we don’t. We did learn “toilet” with thinking we could use it to say between my husband and me, but we never used it
Communicating with others
Do your kids try to communicate with sign language with other people than you?
We communicate in sign language with my wife when we’re too far from each other. I also on one occasion used it when doing groceries with a deaf person at the store checkout
She will sign “I love you” to daddy, but that is it
Do your kids communicate in sign language with each other or other kids?
My son is with 2 other children at his nanny’s so they all have the habit to communicate with sign languages (either between them, or with the Nanny)
My son will show to his little sister. But I need to initiate it
Family and friends
How did your entourage react to sign language communication?
Most of our family members are amazed to watch our son sign regularly. Some had concerns about the fact “sign language may become easier than speech” and he may refuse to speak. But it was not the case and now he does both. And now we have to learn signs to all our family because they all want to sign with him !
Our family and friends were very supportive, but I think that is because they knew of my background with it
Our family and friends were very supportive and some went to the same lessons as us after
Link with the Deaf community
If you have the possibility to sign with your children, just do it. It has only benefits for you as parents and human beings, You’ll be able to communicate with deaf people and make them feel understood. and for your children you'll help them avoid frustration and communicate with their world
There is so much that I could write here! When I was learning sign (in the early 90’s), the Deaf community was fairly opposed to the cochlear implant. This has changed quite a bit since then. The interpreter who taught me explained it such that the Deaf community did not think that there was anything wrong with them, so why should they need to get this? (This at the time was also kind of the view about deaf people learning to speak. Some did, some didn’t. But sign language was still deeply rooted in their culture. They had some very strong opinions about “Children of a Lesser God,” because they were trying to force the deaf female lead to speak in the story.) Since that was a strong opinion when I was learning, I must admit to finding the change in views (or what I perceive to be the change anyway) to be a bit strange
As a tip to any parent who wants to learn this, don’t try to make your child do the exact sign. As soon as the sign is good enough to be understood by you or someone else, it’s fine. Don’t forget that they're just children and that’s is a brand new language for them to learn. And maybe you could have a secret sign with them one day !
Because babies’ brains are developing, their brains don’t allow them to quite make the same shapes and movements with their hands as adults. It took my nanny showing me that she was actually signing for me to see it, and that was with all of my background in ASL! I think the key is to just stick with it. Every time you hand them milk, sign “milk.” Even better, sign “milk, please.” Follow it up with “thank you.” Help them make the hand movements themselves. It will come!
I still use the sign “please” and “thank you” when my kid forgets to use it.
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