Why I’m teaching my daughter sign language

baby sign language hands communication espanolita

(Photo courtesy of Weird Beard, Flickr CC)

No, it’s not because I’m an overachiever, although my mom jokes that I am. Or, because I’ve suddenly found myself with hours of free time, which I haven’t.

But, because it’s working! It’s working for all of the reasons that all of those fancy toddler experts said it would work.

For those of you new to the blog, my madrileño husband, D., and I are raising our 17-month old daughter, E., bilingually. Our current language policy is heritage language with the family (i.e., we only use Spanish with her and each other) and the majority language (English) with everyone else. (You can read more about it here and here.)

In deciding to teach E. sign language, I had a choice between American Sign Language (ASL) or Spanish sign language, but since we live in the United States and because she also has to communicate with her English monolingual family and friends, ASL it is.

I realize that baby sign language isn’t for every family.

But, here are four reasons why I’m teaching my daughter baby sign language:

1. It reduces frustration.

Proponents of baby sign language assert that equipping infants and toddlers with the ability to communicate their needs and wants through their hands and gestures can help reduce frustration and ultimately ward off some temper tantrums. The rationale is that most toddler tantrums can be traced back to a child’s basic needs not being met (think of the acronym H.A.L.T., or hungry, angry, lonely, tired). If a pre-verbal toddler is hungry, for example, and is unable to tell her dad that she wants to eat, she might get frustrated and ultimately have an emotional meltdown.

In my short time as a mom to a toddler, I have found that most of E.’s bursts of frustration or anger are due to one of the four aforementioned needs not being met. However, now that I’ve taught her a few basic signs, like “eat” and “milk” (for nursing, which she needs when she’s lonely), she can sign her need and I quickly respond. Frustration avoided and tantrum averted (a lot of the times, but not always).

And, a happy toddler is a happy mom!

2. It fosters independence.

By teaching E. the signs for her highest need words, I am enabling her to communicate for herself. Those previous two-minute guessing games of me trying to decipher her whimpers and grunts as she pointed insistently at something on the kitchen counter have now been replaced with clear signs. She no longer waits for me to decipher what’s going through her mind. She “tells” me; she “speaks up” for herself. Independence.

Additionally, my teaching her to sign her requests instead of shouting or whimpering shows her that there are appropriate ways to communicate and interact with others.

At 17 months, E. is growing and transitioning from a “I’m-completely-dependent-on-mom-to-feed-me-and-change-me” baby to a “let-me-try-it-and-do-it-by-myself” toddler. Just as she no longer eats 100% breast milk and no longer needs to hold my hand to walk, she no longer needs to rely on crying as her only form of communication.

By giving her a language appropriate for her developmental level, D. and I are empowering her to take control of how and when some of her needs are met.

3. It serves as a bridge (or, scaffold) between the pre-verbal and verbal stages

Although there are mixed research findings on the correlation between teaching babies sign language and their linguistic and cognitive development, it is true that “‘communication is at the heart of child development, be it cognitive, social, emotional or behavioral'” (Psychologist Dr. Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon of the University of Stirling, UK). From the day they are born, children are constantly communicating with their primary caregivers, be it through their cries of hunger or through their facial and hand gestures.

As a 17-month old toddler, E. is capable of more than just crying to express her needs, but at the same time, she’s not quite able to vocalize intelligible words and phrases in Spanish or English. She’s in between; and, when you’re in between you need scaffolding to help you cross from point a to point b. That’s the role of baby sign language: it’s a bridge between a child’s pre-verbal and verbal stages of toddlerhood.

In fact, sign language also encourages toddlers to engage in other aspects of interpersonal communication, like making eye contact with their speakers. I have noticed that instead of looking in the direction of what she wants, E. makes direct eye contact with me as she signs. Eye contact is an important socio-communicative skill that she’ll need once she starts talking with words, and she’s getting practice with it now.

4. It’s just plain fun!

Call me a nerd, but there is nothing more that I love than languages, well, except learning them.

Imagine this: it’s 11pm on a Saturday night. D. and little Miss E. are fast asleep. I’m all alone on the living room floor watching youtube videos on how to sign “milk,” “cereal,” and “bath time.” And, if that wasn’t nerdy enough, I color printed and laminated the top 20 baby signs and stuck them up on my fridge.

If you had asked me six or seven months ago, “Will you teach E. sign language?” I would have responded with a “No, I’ve got enough with Spanish (my second language)!” But, within the past month or so that I’ve started to incorporate words little by little into our sign repertoire, and as I have watched E.’s face light up when she understands that the sign for “water” equals the word “agua” coming from my mouth and that from that sign she gets what she wants, I think, THIS IS AWESOME! THIS IS FUN!

In a sense, teaching her sign language has become our own little game. She stares, sometimes mesmerized, as I teach her a new sign. She copies me. I laugh. She smiles. We both laugh. If for no other reason, it’s the fun factor and the mother-daughter bonding that keep me in the game, so to speak. Will she start speaking sooner? I don’t know. Will baby sign language bring us closer together? Probably not. (That’s what breastfeeding and reading aloud together and one-on-one playing are for.)

But, it’s fun!

Have you taught your children baby sign language? Why or why not? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “Why I’m teaching my daughter sign language

  1. I studied ASL for a while in college (after studying a wide variety of other languages), and I found that knowing sign language helped me with all of my other languages. Why? Well, because you can simultaneously “speak” it while you speak another language. It really helped me organize my thoughts regardless of what language I was learning. But, yes! People need to know that sign language varies from country to country. The ASL sign for the letter T (and, consequently, “toilet”) is offensive here in Guatemala! So, while I might use some sign language talking to myself, it’s not something I use in public, and it’s something I’ll have to consider carefully when I have children.

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    • Hi! Thanks for commenting! I really appreciate your perspective. I would love to learn more sign language and more ABOUT s.l. Linguists and just general lay people (even multilinguals) tend to overlook it. It IS a language!

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  2. How great! I taught nugget sign language and it was a great benefit during that non verbal transition time. I unfortunately didn’t follow through with Chi-Chi and now wish that I had. She’s taking a longer time learning her language skills so she gets really frustrated.

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  3. Great post! I also used sign language, but was not patient enough;( It was good before she started talking as it helped us to understand each other. At Montessori class (toddler group) which I attended with my daughter they used it all the time during activities and snack. It was helpful as at that time my daughter wouldn’t understand much English. Thank you for the inspiration! I will try to do better with the second child that is on the way.

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