Why I’m Teaching my (Hearing) Baby Sign Language – and How he’s Becoming a Polyglot

In this post you’ll find out how my son is incidentally becoming a multilingual child – learning effortlessly three languages, to be precise.

(If you want to skip the intro, and how it all happened, read directly the list of 12 reasons, particularly points 7, 11 and 12.)

Why teach sign language to babies
The benefits of Sign Language for Babies

When I first heard my baby cry, I wondered if I could ever really understand him, what made him cry, what made him smile.

It seemed I would have to wait until he started speaking and answering my questions that I would finally be able to fully understand this little miracle that was made of my same flesh and blood, and yet with a mind I could not penetrate.

I found out about sign language for babies pretty much by chance. It was mentioned in a little book that was intended to let you bond with your child and help him develop his brain right from birth with play-like activities.

Despite the excitement at the idea that my baby could actually have a way to communicate with me, and all the videos of signing babies I saw,I wasn’t completely sure that it could really work. But I decided to give it a try and be open to whatever might come of the experience. And, boy, am I grateful I did!

So if you are asking what is sign language? Well, practically, is a communication system that uses hand gestures (and in part face expression) to convey a desired meaning to others. I currently use American Sign Language and it’s the same one non-hearing or non-speaking adults use.

Theoretically speaking, I didn’t have to use the standard ASL language. I could have used gestures that related to the meaning I wanted to convey but that were of my invention, and this thought occurred to me. One reason I dismissed it, was that I felt that I might end up forgetting some of the newly invented gestures, which would turn out to be confusing for the baby. The other reason was that, after the first successful attempt, I didn’t really want to stop signing to him. I felt sign language was indeed a beautiful and fascinating language and if he wanted to stop signing, one day, that would be up to him. But if, instead, he wanted to continue, he could be able to communicate with other people who used sign language.

The First WORD

The first word I signed to Baby Eureka was ‘milk’. I reasoned that if he couldn’t sign his most basic need, then it would be difficult to make him want to sign anything else.

I think he was about six months when we started, and for the first couple of days he would just look at me blankly or have an amused (sarcastic?!) look. Sometimes he would totally and defiantly ignore me but about a week in, I could see him getting curious and expectant whenever I would say milk or he was about to eat.

Then, maybe toward the end of the second week, something must have clicked, and in what seemed like a miraculous day, he signed milk out of the blue when I was getting him ready for sleep!

I was so delighted and almost couldn’t believe my eyes. I hurried to my husband (who was initially quite skeptical to the idea) to share what seemed to be an incredible achievement.

The little one had now two pair of expectant eyes looking at him…And he repeated the milk sign! Seeing our reaction, his face lit up as if he himself was proud of what he had done. Since he actually got milk after having requested so, he would from now on receive it at his own command and without having to work himself up to a cry.

The most basic emotional need for babies is to be understood

The vocal chords and sounds apparatus of babies  are not yet ready to produce sounds that are required to form meaningful words in their native languages. Nevertheless, they need to communicate their needs and wants.

If left to their own devices, they will revert to their default way of expressing their needs, i.e. crying, whining and screaming.

Although incapable of talking clearly, babies, and especially toddlers, are quite capable, and eager, of copying gestures.

My baby loves to observe and emulate, to the best of his skills, whatever he sees done in front of him. This can be problematic if he happens to see us drink hot tea, but it can be transformed into a huge opportunity for teaching and learning.

When I first started experimenting with this idea, he just stared blankly at me,which is quite comprehensible, but you should see the level of attention that he now pays to every movement I make and the swiftness at which he picks up new words and signs.

baby dad communication talk speak

So, if you are not yet sure whether it is worth the trouble to do the same with your child, I’ve summarized here the top 12 reasons why you should teach your baby Sign Language

  1. You will get a peak view into his mind, thoughts and want as s/he can finally tell you exactly what s/he needs
  2. Objects, animals and events, actually start to have meaning and make some sense to them. He formerly used to look passively at things and animals in particular. Now, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to sign what he has learned whenever the stimulus appears. Going outside becomes an adventure as the baby enthusiastically spots all the objects or animals you teach him
  3. As a result of these newly acquired communication skills and their ability to express themselves, they turn from potentially frustrated children, to happier ones. We all enjoy being understood!
  4. Once your baby gets the hang of it, literally everyday, he will be willing and eager to try and learn something new. He now points things to me and ‘asks’ me what a particular thing is. (He likes ‘reading and signing’ the “First 100 Words” book in particular)
  5. I could also say that “studies say that sign language help children talk earlier and be better communicators and that they were found out to have higher IQ scores”, but the study was quite small and no definitive proof can be taken from it
  6. It instills confidence and self worth in babies as
    • a. they find themselves capable to communicate
    • b. caregivers can respond to their needs earlier and better, nurture them more while encouraging such behavior
  7. A deeper level of love, connection and understanding with your child. This is truly priceless.
  8. It’s fun and creates heart-warming memories. This is true, or maybe even more so, when they can’t exactly copy the sign. For example, my baby can’t quite copy the sign of ‘baby’, which is basically made by pretending to lull a baby in your arms. Instead, he hugs himself and sways from side to side. (I should probably add a video about it below because I find it hilariously cute <3)
  9. He will start coming up with signs of his own and what’s more, he will become better at communicating his wants even without using sign language
  10. Routines, diaper changes in particular, go way more smoothly -especially when they learn the meaning of the “all done/finished” sign.
  11. His vocabulary has increased so much, although he does not sign all of the following words, he perfectly understand them all
    1. outside
    2. hat
    3. shoes
    4. pants
    5. pampers
    6. towel
    7. hairbrush
    8. wash hands
    9. eyes
    10. hair
    11. ears
    12. mouth (sometimes he confounds this with ‘mouse’ :D)
    13. foot
    14. head/face
    15. toes
    16. nose
    17. shoulders
    18. knees
    19. belly button
    20. bear
    21. duck
    22. horse
    23. fish
    24. rabbit
    25. cow
    26. dog
    27. cat
    28. mouse
    29. sheep
    30. elephant
    31. lion
    32. birds
    33. monkey
    34. butterfly
    35. Spongebob (I just sign a yellow square even though he hasn’t learned about colors yet!)
    36. book
    37. car – this is one of his favorites, and even when he meets strangers on the streets he likes signing car to them followed by some type of babble (he’s probably already bragging about his cars at home xD)
    38. motorcycle
    39. airplane
    40. train
    41. elevator
    42. bye bye
    43. goodnight
    44. sleep
    45. shake hands
    46. high five
    47. kiss
    48. hug
    49. thank you
    50. caress the cheek
    51. water
    52. milk
    53. bottle
    54. prayer
    55. lights off
    56. lights on
    57. mommy
    58. daddy
    59. aunt
    60. grandma
    61. cousin
    62. biscuit
    63. yogurt
    64. Cerelac
    65. banana
    66. food
    67. eat
    68. ball
    69. remote control
    70. telephone
    71. music/dance
    72. Where is…?
    73. Open
    74. Close
    75. Door
    76. keys
    77. watch
    78. yes
    79. no
    80. stop
    81. come here
    82. give me
    83. take
    84. leaf
    85. flower
    86. yucky/disgusting/dirty
    87. cry
  12. Now, the sweet thing is: he knows most of the previous words in two languages, besides American Sign Language: English and Arabic!

What I have found particularly interesting is the following: it seems to me that, when I name something in two different ways, he actually pays attention to the sign to gauge if I’m talking about the same thing or not. So, what I have started doing is to say, for example, ‘cat’ and do the relative sign, and then say ‘dimmah’ (cat in Arabic),  and repeat the sign.

Furthermore. there are many ways to say cat in Arabic, as there are in English, and I frequently switch back and forth among them and Baby Eureka is perfectly aware that I’m still talking about the same animal. In addition to that, we often just say “meow” when a cat is nearby and the baby promptly makes the sign for cat and looks around to spot it.

In conclusion, I can just say that I have absolutely loved the experience, and I’m grateful for having stumbled upon the Sign Language information. Maybe this will inspire you too to give it a shot and ultimately achieve a higher quality of bonding with your own child, even before he starts to speak.

You can check on Youtube for ASL videos for beginners. I particularly like the My Smart Hands videos.

In a following post I will give a few tips about how to go about teaching your child sign language.

Until then, have a wonderful day and thank you for reading!

Leave here your interesting thoughts 🙂

11 thoughts on “Why I’m Teaching my (Hearing) Baby Sign Language – and How he’s Becoming a Polyglot

  1. This is a cool idea. Hadn’t thought of it before but might try it out one day. I have often thought that I am going to make sure that my eventual kids grow up to be as multi-lingual as possible. Are you doing anything specific to ensure that?

    1. Your eventual kids will be lucky! Well, I’m not doing anything that a normal parent doesn’t already do. It comes natural to speak a certain way with kids, to repeat sentences more than once, ask them questions about what they have said, done, seen, speak clearly and so forth. The only addition you will have if you want to raise a multi lingual child is that of repeating sentences in different languages. The key thing is to take a contextual approach to it. For example, in teaching new signs to my son, I follow his interest whenever possible. I like letting him tell me what he likes to learn. So, he sees these small, green, oval things in the living room and he keeps looking at them. “Do you want to touch the leaf? L E A F. Yes, that’s a leaf. Do you want me to give you a leaf? Here’s a leaf!” Making sure to sign leaf each time and repeating a variation of that same dialogue in Arabic, or sometimes Italian. Actually, I love practicing my German and Spanish with my son, there’s no better language partner, really (since he will think I’m right whatever I say xD ). It wouldn’t really make much sense to try to tell a baby what snow is if he lives in the desert and has never seen it, so I try to contextualize his learning as much as possible and actually try to use the same technique when I’m learning a new language as well (ie starting from familiar, everyday things, vs the usual restaurant or hotel reservation scenario). I still have a couple of things on this subject, such as the fear your baby will get confused if you talk to him in more than one language, but I’d rather write a separate post about it.
      Thank you for reading and leaving such an interesting question!

    1. Awww congrats! Yes, I still feel excited for whatever new word he learns. It’s simply incredible how smart babies can be, much more than we often give them credit for 🙂
      Hope you’ll enjoy the experience as much as I am

Any thoughts on this? I'd love to read them :)