Language: Baby Sign Language is for Crazy Giraffes

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[Elephant photo courtesy of]

Is it crazy to teach your kids baby sign language? I decided to find out with baby number 3.

That was 10 years ago. I must have had a bit of an obsession with language for longer than I realised. We uprooted and moved abroad principally so that the kids could learn a second language when they were young. I became an English teacher and was allowed to wonder and marvel at language acquisition every day. I get all excited and animated talking about pronunciation. It’s a sad state of affairs.

So, investigating sign language, in retrospect seemed a given.

Baby signs.
Those first first baby “jelly neck” days are kinda tough, and scary.

With baby 1, even a solo trip to the bathroom was well nigh impossible to squeeze into a day. Having time for baby signs was out. With baby 2 we lived in that magical land of “self employment” and after the day of delivery itself, I was back to it the next day preparing end of year tax stuff because it was April and the person who usually did it was off sick. Everyone was cooing lovingly at baby name books. I had my pile of P60s.

When my little baby signs guinea pig, christened Katie, was born, we decided to see what baby sign language was all about. When I say we, my husband and sons looked on in amusement for the first few months, but got hooked too when things, amazing things, started to happen…….

So what happened?

I borrowed a book out the library called Baby Signs: How to talk with your baby before your baby can talk, by Linda Acredolo. The author did a lot of research about the effects of baby signs on language development. It was really interesting.

I started as suggested when Katie was about 5 months old doing the basic signs for “milk”, “thirsty”, “flower” etc. Some of the signs I copied from the book, some I just made up. Neil and the boys looked on, a bit amused/bemused at their crazy wife/mum sniffing wildly (made up sign) when she saw a flower, or with a fist and thumb like a hitch hiker, bringing her thumb up to her mouth for “thirsty”. I think also a made up sign.

But I began to wonder. I was getting absolutely zip back from my little guinea pig in terms of baby signs. I’d been sniffing and gesticulating for months. Then, when she was 8 or so months old, and I was carrying her down the stairs of our 1970s decorated house, she started madly sniffing and waggling her legs. She kept at it till I stopped moving. We weren’t in the garden. What was she on about? And then I looked at the swirly 70s wallpaper COVERED in flowers. And she wanted me to stop and look! I nearly dropped her down the stairs.

From then on it was pretty fast. The muscle coordination in her chubby hands and fingers had improved to the extent that she could do more and more signs herself. “Milk”, “thirsty”, “flower”, “more”, “cat”, “dog”, “nappy” – she was off!! Few words, but loads of signs. It was fantastic. It was fun. Neil and the boys joined in. It was two-way communication.

And how did this help? Life was made easier and so much less frustrating for all of us. Babies know what they want, but they sometimes have a mighty tricky time passing that message on. Even after they’ve figured out what “language” is, they’ve got the movement of their lips and tongue to master, and the speed of vibration of their vocal cords and of air from their lungs to get in check. It’s pretty complicated technical stuff, even after you know the words.

Here are a few examples of times when it helped us communicate. Katie could say “sore” – index finger tips touching. It’s great to be able to tell someone when something’s sore. What was sore? Her tummy, her ears, her mouth? She could point. She could ask for a drink. Get me to stop walking when I was carrying or pushing her in a buggy because she’d seen a cat or a flower, or a squirrel up in the trees, and wanted me to see it too. How frustrating being whisked along at adult pace, when the world is full of exciting things to look at.

In the early days Neil was a bit sceptical. Did she really know the sign? Was it just a fluke? One weekend when we were away for a couple of nights in our caravan, Katie repeated over and over the sign for giraffe. Every time we went out the door she’d do the sign again. “Jen, there are no giraffes in Fochabers.” (a small town in the north-east of Scotland). He was right. There were no (known) giraffes in the north-east of Scotland. Maybe she was just randomly copying, with no idea as to the connection between the sign and the meaning. I spend the weekend in doubt.

As we were packing to go home, we walked along the path outside the caravan on the way to the toilet block. The frantic giraffe signing started again. We looked into a neighbouring awning at a high chair in the corner – with a huge giraffe painted up the side. I went all goose pimply.

By one and a half, Katie also had a string of the usual early words. As she got the word she dropped the sign. “Hippopotamus” is a sign you tend to retain for a while. One evening she tried to reach up for a book from the bookcase. Which book? There were loads. She signed. “Ah, the one about the elephant”. Sorted. No tantrum to explain that it’s wasn’t any old book but the really funny stripy elephant book she couldn’t reach. Elephant is another pretty hard word to get your tongue and lips around – it might have been a year before she could ask in words.

Our Number 3 was a slow walker. I think because she could sit and ask for what she needed without moving her butt. We were lucky with the tantrums, I think because she was better able to express what she needed or meant.

She’s now 10, and I can’t report that she’s become a child genius as a result of her early language signing. But boy was it fun that the whole family could “chat” with her even before she could speak. We understood her better. And she could understand us. Even after the early months of looking a bit of a dummy, I’d do it all again, for sure. It’s a great way to communicate.

Baby signs
Communicating is fun.

These days there are loads of books on baby signs and even classes you can go to. Are you expecting a baby soon or do you have a little one? Are you a slightly obsessive language geek like me? Give it a try!

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One Reply to “Language: Baby Sign Language is for Crazy Giraffes”

  1. Louise Atkinson says:

    It certainly makes life easier if you can understand what they want.

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