How to Learn and Teach Babies Sign Language
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
How to Learn and Teach Babies Sign Language
Learning and teaching your child baby sign language can give them an advantage in language and literacy skills before they even learn to talk.
When your small child signs back to you the first time, it equals the joy felt when they say those first words. I vividly recall this joy. I was attending sign language classes and teaching my grandson, who was just a toddler. One day I was at thiee top of the stairs. I looked down and signed to him, “I LOVE YOU.” Without skipping a beat, he signed back to me, “I LOVE YOU.” My heart melted with joy!
Thousands of such experiences and research have shown us that babies can
communicate with sign language before using spoken language. The rewards are
so exciting! And you will soon be the how-to expert. These rewards include enriching family bonds, increasing self-esteem, reducing frustration, providing insight into your child’s thoughts, feelings, questions, and concerns and providing early access to language that builds cognitive skills and literacy. Language and literacy go hand in hand. Learning to sign with your baby gives them the gift of language before they even learn to talk!
Sign Language Studies, a Deaf journal, printed an excellent paper that includes in-depth information on the importance of language acquisition for all children. The study monitors and documents the life of Ann from birth to two years and ten months. Once in school, Ann performs with a love of learning and exceptional literacy skills. Reading about Ann’s early experience with the language is fun and insightful. I love this story. It shows how a Deaf child flourished with language.
Immersing your child from birth with language and its meaning proves to be a winning adventure for thriving in language, literacy, and life for all children. So here are tips to get you started!
So how do you teach your child a language you may not know?
You can start by learning a few simple, basic signs: “I LOVE YOU,” “MILK,” “MORE,” “FINISH,” “PLEASE,” “THANK YOU,” “PLAY,” “SLEEP,” “MOM,” “DAD,” “YES,”
“NO.” Learn how to ask questions. If you are looking for a “YES” or “NO” response, raise your eyebrows, lean slightly forward, tilt your head, and hold the sign for a second. “YOU (with raised eyebrows, tilted head leaning forward) WANT MORE?”
Many instructional sign language websites show you how to sign these and thousands of other signs for free. You will want a reliable, trusted site. Visit our resource page for recommended resources. Check with your local library, community colleges, community education programs, and reliable internet sources. Books from your local library or favorite bookstore provide teaching tips and images of handshape, palm orientation, locations, arrows for movement and facial expressions that make up every sign.
Learn the basic components of sign language
There are five parts to sign language. Four of them are known as “parameters” and the fifth one is known as a non-manual marker (facial expressions). Some signs use only one hand. Some require two, and others offer the option of one or two hands.
The first parameter is HANDSHAPE. Every letter of the alphabet is a handshape. Learning the ASL alphabet is a good foundation to begin learning. The ASL alphabet has 26 handshapes, one for each letter of the English alphabet. Numbers are also handshapes that are also used to produce many different signs.
The second parameter is PALM ORIENTATION, which determines the direction of the palm. Palm up! Palm down! Palm in or out? Lots of directions to go.
The third parameter is LOCATION. Handshape, palm orientation and location are formed inside an imaginary box, the signer's space. This space is designed so that the reader can see all the parts of a sign and receive the communication.
The fourth and last parameter is MOVEMENT, referring to the movement you are making with your hands.
Download - FREE ASL Alphabet chart and instructional bonus pages
Once you know the basics, here is how you can put them in practice
First, routine is an excellent way to implement signs into your child’s world. Before you lift them from their crib, sign “I LOVE YOU.” Then taking their hands in yours, cross their arms over their chest, forming the sign and saying, “I love you.” Before their bottle or nursing, sign “MILK?” At storytime, introduce signs for “BOOK,” “READ,” “STORY.”
Second, you can share with books in hand, teaching your child to notice the images. Ask questions about what is said and seen. Then invite your child to inquire and share their ideas about what is or could be happening in the story. Be patient and allow them to explore and respond. Soon they will sign. Through book sharing, they will also learn to take turns in conversations in other areas of life.
Third, scaffolding is something most parents perform naturally, guiding the child through their environment, interacting, and socializing with them. Talk and sign to your child with everything you do: Let’s go for a “WALK.” Describe and identify everything with signs and words. Ask questions like, “PLAY, YOU WANT?” “SLEEPY?” “BANANAS, YOU LIKE?”
Look into those little eyes of wonder and joy. Be intentional in building relationships and attentive communication habits by using eye contact to connect, and your gaze to direct attention to an object of conversation. Expressing feelings and attaching meanings to signs helps the child retain and recall a sign. Add repetition to help build language, communication, and beautiful memories. Keep track of progress and celebrate all the new signs your child learns. Have fun learning and growing together!
There are so many benefits to learning sign language, and it’s never too late to start. If you are a parent and are interested in encouraging your child to learn ASL, check out My Monster Truck Goes Everywhere with Me, a book that teaches kids how to use sign language for simple conversations.
"Learning ASL opens pathways in your brain, enhancing your cognitive skills at any age." Learn more in these blog articles:
Brains are Better with Sign Language
4 Overlooked Benefits of Sign Language
Why Sign Language is the Perfect Second Language
American Sign Language is a beautiful and powerful language, an untapped resource with limitless potential.
Every child has a gift to give ASL can help them discover and express it.