Sign Language for Babies

Communicating before your child can talk

I’VE ALWAYS FOUND it odd the way we communicate with babies. Some of us babble away to our kids as if they’re thoroughly versed in adult concepts, while others wheedle and croon in a horrid mush of words ending in ‘iddle’ – but the one thing that everyone loves is the point when baby starts talking back.


It’s wonderful. The emergence of an infant’s language ability is really her entry into the human sphere. We’re perhaps best defined, after all, as creatures touched by language; it is words that make us whole. I don’t mean particular languages, of course – English, Vietnamese, French – but more that it’s the very essence of what language enables us to do that makes us who we are. It’s language that allows our minds to represent things that are outside of us; to forge connections between things not otherwise obvious to the senses; to envisage possible situations and visualize how to bring them about. Take away any limb and we remain human; take away our bodies and we die human; take away our gift of language and we will remain something far less than what we were.
Try going a little deeper than that, and you’re really entering serious navel-gazing territory – the question of ‘yes, but what really is language?’ is one that philosophers and gurus have built entire careers on. Those questions aside, the function of language in transforming us from animals of instinct into people is something that is a source of constant wonder to the parent. Most parents are fortunate enough to receive their package of pure biological functions squirming in a blanket just after being born, and the slow transformation of that wriggling human worm into a conscious child who will just not stop talking is as miraculous as the birth itself. If only (once they’ve mastered this language thing) they could learn how to keep themselves quiet while you’re all trying to get some sleep, and this whole arrangement would be perfect.
There is one seldom-considered tragedy in this whole process, however, and that is the fact that while the structures of language descend upon an infant in the very early stages of development, a baby’s physical capacity to make the sounds of speech takes much longer. It’s tough enough for baby to learn how to thrash his arms around properly – let alone form the precise shapes of the tongue and co-ordinate these with the vocal chords to produce words. This means that for the first year or two of life, the infant mind is voiceless in the baby’s body – it knows what it wants, and it can recognize what it hears, but it just can’t say anything. If you wondered why babies cry so much, this could well be part of the problem – your baby is trapped in a prison for the mind.
Demonstrate and Repeat
There’s a rather interesting solution to this problem, however, and it’s been gaining rather a lot of traction recently now that it’s been recognized as monetizable. Based on observations made some two hundred years ago on the comparative academic success of able-bodied children born to deaf parents, research in the 1970s revealed that prelingual babies can learn to communicate with their hands much earlier than they can speak. In simple terms, babies as young as four months old can learn to sign.
So yeah – it’s true that you can hold actual conversations with your kid while they’re still in diapers. They’re not going to be weighty topics of discussion, sure – you’ll discover your child has fixations on milk and going to the toilet pretty early on – but there are two really compelling reasons why this is a genuinely brilliant idea.


The first of these is that it gives your baby an early release from cognitive isolation. Instead of screaming to be changed, baby can tell you what she needs in sign language, meaning that she will cry a whole lot less.
Secondly, your own behavior towards your child changes once they identify themselves as being able to communicate. The subtleties of this are covered in an excruciatingly abstruse fashion throughout the works of Hegel – but suffice it to say that when you respond to your baby as a human communicator, the reassurance you provide to her sense of self-identity is immensely liberating. To a child of less than a year old, the recognition of its independent mind is a major head start.
I mentioned that this idea has been monetized – there are volumes dedicated to the subject available for purchase, and a number of flashcard kits being hawked to teach both parents and baby in turn the vocabulary of simple signs they’ll need. A cursory Google search, however, will yield ample such resources for free. Regardless of how you set yourself up, the process of teaching sign language to your child is pretty much the same as you’d teach any language – demonstrate and repeat. Always use the sign for water when you hand over a drink bottle or give baby a bath; always use the sign for sleep when it’s time to go to bed. Baby will pick it up and start using the signs independently within weeks. It works like magic.
The only reservation that parents tend to have about all this is the fear that if their child starts depending on sign language to communicate, won’t that delay the urgency to develop skills in vocal language? The answer to that is a simple ‘no,’ it doesn’t. Nothing can stop that endless jabbering from kicking off at around age two and a half – so if you were thinking of peaceful nights while junior signs herself off to sleep instead of chattering incessantly, then sorry no, you shall not be spared.

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