Our daughter has a lot to say. She’ll chatter animatedly to any available audience . . . she just doesn’t include many recognizable words in her conversation. At 16 months, her verbal vocabulary includes “mama” and “dada,” “hi,” “baby,” “no,” “cat,” and a couple of close approximations of “belly button” and “nose.” Fortunately, she isn’t limited in communicating by language – she can sign!
We started baby sign language with our little one when she was about 7 months old. Initially, we introduced just a few signs associated with her favorite activities: nursing and eating. She picked up the sign for “all done” first (waving her hands away from her body), providing a conclusion to mealtime we much preferred over the previous method of dumping whatever was left on the floor. Next, she added a sign for “drink,” adapting our example of a thumb to the lips to pointing with her index finger at her mouth while tilting her head back.
Other signs, like her sign for “nurse,” she created all on her own. I had been demonstrating a version of the sign for nurse that used a sweeping motion of a flat hand from the shoulder down over the breast, symbolizing letdown. My daughter never picked up the sign I showed her, instead coming up with something entirely different: her sign for “nurse” is an index finger pointing into the middle of her opposite palm. Emphatically. I don’t know how she arrived at that gesture, but what the sign used to represent any particular concept doesn’t matter as long as we know what it means.
Recognizing and responding to your child’s needs is a fundamental principle of the AP philosophy; sign language provides our baby an additional tool for expressing those needs when she can’t find the words. It also allows her to tell us about what she’s observing and experiencing – signing “dog” when we pass one on the sidewalk or hear barking outside, signing “hot” to describe her dinner as steam rises off the plate.
She has about 10 signs in her regular repertoire now, and she makes good use of each of them. We continue to show her signs for common objects or things she shows a special interest in, letting her decide which she wants to add to her “vocabulary.” Even as she can speak more words, she may continue to pick up additional signs and “talk” to us in a combination of words and signs. Whatever she wants to say, and however she chooses to “say” it, we’re listening. When do infants start talking? Most babies are babbling regularly by 6 months, making short strings of consonant-vowel sounds such as ba-ba, ma-ma and da-da. “It’s all practice because those babbles form the basis of his first words,” Casasola says. “Babies exposed to two languages will even babble in ways that are consistent with both languages.”