Thursday, January 2, 2014

Baby Sign Language

I'm sure I've alluded to signing with our baby before, but it's a very complicated subject, and to be honest I wanted to see if we'd be successful before writing about it.  None of us are hard of hearing, but I've heard that it can make the terrible twos easier as well as enable more meaningful communication at an earlier age.  In fact, I may have first heard about it from one of the "Meet the Fockers" movies, as seen in this clip:

Robert DeNiro's character demonstrates baby sign language

My wife gave me a sign language kit - a book, flashcards, and a DVD.  It was a good start, but there is more to the methodology of how to teach a child to sign, especially when you are not a native (or at all experienced) signer.

My sister-in-law got this book/DVD combo from her local library, Sign with your Baby by Dr. Joseph Garcia.  I read some of the book but never watched the DVD, although it had some good information.  Many of the signs overlapped with the kit my wife had given me, but it had more about the methodology of teaching sign language.  It was from this book that I learned that some baby signing systems do not use actual ASL (the language adults use) but their own sign languages, designed specifically for babies.  This seemed crazy to me… like teaching your child baby talk on purpose, thus limiting their interaction with others.  I want my child to learn the ASL that people hard of hearing use, not some made-up baby sign language.  We've probably all heard of the bogus interpreter at the Nelson Mandela tribute; to me this is the equivalent of baby sign languages that aren't ASL.

I think I should take a moment to talk about the advantages of raising bilingual or multilingual children. The only disadvantage I've heard of is that sometimes it can delay speech, simply because if the child can already communicate there is little reason to learn to speak.  I'm currently studying to become a teacher, and one of the courses I've taken is about teaching students whose native language is not English, aka ELLs (English Language Learners).  At first it is difficult for these students to manage both learning a language and the content of their grade level, but once they become fluent they excel in both languages.  The same applies to ASL, which is a language all its own with grammar and syntax and everything that makes it a distinct language.  I'm also trying to learn ASL simultaneously for a variety of reasons, not least of which is because it's a great way to communicate with another person who signs without others knowing what you're saying.

Eventually I went to my local library and took a look through the teach baby to sign books there, and found one that was fantastic.  The Baby Signing Book by Sara Bingham not only has 450 ASL signs, but has a very useful guide on how to introduce the signs to your child.  I'll admit that I didn't follow it exactly, but part of it involved writing in the book and I didn't own it and don't want to get banned from my library.

If I remember correctly, the book recommended starting when your child is 3-4 months old and choosing 8-10 signs for common things you do with your child.  I chose things like eat, drink, milk, sleep, all done, please, sorry, thank you, you're welcome, good, hungry, change (for diaper change), I love you, sleep, bed, music, and others that I could use several times a day.  I realize that's more than 8-10 signs, but once you are comfortable making those signs and have them memorized the book says to add a new sign every week to build your vocabulary.  Your child won't start signing until later, but they're learning from everything you do and will surprise you when they start signing.

One lesson from The Baby Signing Book that I liked was that it's never too late to start signing.  This was a great book that really got into the specifics of signing with your child, and had places to record when you start using a sign with your child, when you first observe your child making the sign, and lots of great instruction.  If you're going to purchase one baby signing book, this is the one.

What I'm about to reveal is the breakthrough discovery of this whole process.  I found a website with hundreds of words in ASL with videos to accompany them, and the whole thing is free!  Everyone out there is trying to capitalize on this baby signing trend by selling charts and flash cards and books and DVDs, but this is a website that is "a labor of love" by the author, Jolanta Lapiak.  In her words: "Jolanta Lapiak is an ASL instructor and ASL/Ameslan literary artist specializing in sign language. Born a native signer to native signers (family and communities from Europe to North America), my work is a labor of love and passion for sign language."

The website is http://www.handspeak.com.  Every word has a small video demonstrating how to sign the word starring Ms. Lapiak, and they also have facebook and twitter accounts, and more videos on youtube as well.  I make sure to visit http://www.handspeak.com/word/ every day (for the ASL word of the day) to build my vocabulary.  Some days they don't update the word and it might be the word from the day before, but the site is completely free!  If the word of the day is a repeat, just click on one of the hundreds of other words and make your own word of the day!  I cannot say enough good things about this site.  If you have any questions there is contact information for Ms. Lapiak right on the site, and I've only sent a message once but she got right back to me and really just wants to help people learn ASL.  There are lessons that cover grammar from beginner to advanced, and this really is the place that everyone should go to learn ASL.  In case there is any confusion, one more time, go to:


I'm not getting any kind of kickback from sending people here, it's just a great site that I visit (almost) every day, and if you're serious about learning ASL with your child this is the place to go.  My final endorsement for this site is one of the many videos you can find on youtube with Ms. Lapiak signing with her child.  In this video her daughter is 1 year 7 months old, and if you have any doubts about ASL for kids you weren't paying close enough attention:

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