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Signing with my baby

by Charlie Swinbourne

8th June 2010

Sign language has become rather fashionable for hearing people to learn. The other big deaf crossover trend is teaching your child to sign before he or she can talk. Charlie and his partner Jo are hearing impaired and sign is part of their everyday life... and now a part of their baby girl's life too.
Baby martha signs
My daughter is now fifteen months old and, from being a tiny baby who could only stare curiously up at us, Martha is now practically a toddler; walking and climbing all over the house, giggling at the TV, and totally obsessed with animal picture books.

As each week passes, she's also communicating more. Recently she's started calling "Daddy!" across the room to get my attention. She calls her Mum "Daddy" as well, but I'm still very proud..!

It's great that she's started speaking, but the truth is she's been communicating with us since October. It's just that her first words didn't come from her mouth - they came from her hands.

Martha can hear but my partner and I are both deaf, and we've been using signs with her from day one. The first time we saw a response to our communications was when Martha was nine months old, and she had fallen in love with her bath toys - a rubber duck and a foam octopus.

As we picked them up, we'd sign their names. The sign for 'octopus' involves making your fingers swell like an octopus's legs in the water, while for 'duck' you open and close your hand as if quacking.

One day Martha squeezed her hand as we signed 'duck' to her. We thought it was a coincidence, but the next day she did it again. Within a few weeks, she was signing 'duck' and 'octopus' on the way up the stairs to the bathroom.
Martha signing
A few weeks later I turned the light on just as it was getting dark and I noticed Martha smile. So I showed her the sign for 'light', which is another word signed in just one hand: your arm held aloft, you stretch your fingers out into a star shape - as if a beam of light is shining down.

I did the sign about twenty times, while flicking the lights on and off. Martha giggled. Then she lifted her hand up, copying Daddy, with a big smile on her face.

The next sign was her most important - 'Mummy'. It's signed with the index, middle and ring fingers making an M shape, which is tapped on the side of your head, just above your ear.

At first Martha seemed to be swatting away a fly as her hand waved by her head. Then gradually the sign became more precise. Soon she was tapping her hand against her head all the time, and if I was in any doubt, I now knew who her favourite was!

The sign for 'Mummy' was useful in ways you might not expect. For example, if Jo had popped out and Martha seemed bereft, all I had to do was sign 'Mummy' while saying she'd be back in a minute. Reassured, she'd return to her toys with a smile on her face.

Signing also seems to have encouraged Martha's speech development; although she can't say 'Mummy' yet, she makes a 'mmm' sound at the same time as making the sign. So for her, the sign and the sound come as one.
Martha signs 'Mummy'
Baby Martha signs 'Mummy'
Signing has also helped release some frustrations. Previously, when she was especially hungry, she could get distressed and upset, but then a new sign came along that helped change all that.

'More' is not an easy sign to make. You tap one hand on top of the other, your palms facing towards yourself as you say it. It was a challenging sign for Martha to understand because 'more' isn't an object or a person that you can point at - we could only try and show it's meaning through repetition while feeding her.

After a lot of persistence, Martha got it, and within a few days, if she wanted that extra spoonful without delay, she could just sign the word and we'd serve her food up extra fast!

She soon realised that 'more' was a word different to the others she knew - it had the power to make things happen. So she started to use the sign for things like asking us to read more of a book, or to sing more of a song.

There was a limit to the power of her new favourite sign, though ...

When it snowed in January, I took her outside to look at the snowflakes as they drifted down. Her eyes widened as the white dust fell, then she enthusiastically signed ... 'more'. She hadn't yet learned that Dad's powers have a limit!
More signing gestures from Martha
Now she knows a new sign that's slightly different. She's learnt 'again', which means Martha can get us to repeat stories we've just told her, swing her round one more time, or make another silly face - even when our faces are starting to ache.

As well as signing, Martha seems aware of other 'deaf things' we do. She taps me and Jo on the shoulder sometimes when she wants our attention - no doubt picking this up from the way she's seen us do it to each other. It's even turned into a game (a bit like 'tag') where she taps us then tries to get away before we can tap her back, sending her into fits of giggles.

She seems to understand that sound and sign are different things. I once noticed her trying to call Jo, and when Jo didn't hear her, she made a sign instead - she realised one way didn't work, so she tried the other.

For us, signing with Martha has been completely natural - being deaf, we were lucky that we were both already fluent in sign language - and we had no problems building it into our everyday communication.

I'm not surprised that signing with young children has become popular with parents and nursery school teachers - in our view, signing gave Martha the power to communicate more effectively a full six months before she would have started speaking. And although she'll soon learn to speak, we'll carry on signing with her as well.

Signing made us feel like we understood each other in some way - and as parents, that's all you dream of.

Whether you are deaf or hearing, share your baby signing experiences with us in the comments below.

Did you find you could communicate with your child earlier as a result of signing?

And if you're a deaf parent with a hearing child, did he or she take to signing just as naturally as Charlie's child? Share your experiences and links.


  • 1. At 07:25am on 09 Jun 2010, aussiewheeler wrote:

    Hi Charlie,

    Thank-you for sending this to me, i have read it and it is very interesting. I cant imagine how communication methods would change if child-care, pre-schools etc brought something similar into the early basic education / care systems.
    Would it create a increased awareness to important communications such as body language?

    really interesting stuff Charles and i am going to pass it onto Ainslie who is very interested and qulaified in ealry childhood behaviours to have a read.

    congratulations on the article mate.

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  • 2. At 09:14am on 09 Jun 2010, turntablist-tikka wrote:

    I love this article, Thanks for sending us all an email with it because I now have a well written article to show people when I tell them about how babys can learn sign language before spoken words. I'm currently studying for my BSL Level 2 and had an exam a week or two ago; I'm hearing but believe that sign language is valuable to everyone. I just wish it was easier to make deaf friends.

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  • 3. At 10:07am on 09 Jun 2010, EmmaBowler wrote:

    I taught my son two signs when he was a baby. I'm not quite sure why I didn't teach him more as even just those two signs were really useful in terms of being able to communicate with a baby who was too young to talk.

    The first sign was 'water' so he could tell me when he wanted a drink. The second sign I couldn't remember what it was until I got to the end of this article and remembered it was 'again' which is, as Charlie says, a very useful sign. My son was able to request stories or actions again whenever he wanted rather than get upset or frustrated.

    Ah you brought it all back to me Charlie!

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  • 4. At 12:36pm on 09 Jun 2010, Alison wrote:

    Good article, but why does the BBC see the need to use the word hearing impaired?! "Charlie and his partner Jo are hearing impaired "

    It is offensive.

    It does not respect difference or diversity, and measures people by a standard. As a parallel, would you call Black people, white impaired? Gay people, straight impaired? And etc, because they are different (don't measure up to a standard that is "normal").

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  • 5. At 8:56pm on 12 Jun 2010, RoseRodent wrote:

    Signing has been so important for our young girl. She has some hearing loss and her speech and language delay may or may not be as a result of that hearing loss. Too many people to count have said the famous "she will never learn to talk if you let her sign" (what's so magic about talking if she can communicate??) but she is learning to talk. And what's more, sign gives her the power to talk in a way that means she can communicate. If she gets the word unclear and the sign more accurate then we know what she means and we can tell her the word again for her to copy. If she simply carried on saying "day-dah" all day nobody would guess it was intended to be "gentle" - so now she can tell daddy to be gentle when he plays tickling, and she knows that is not how you say "gentle" and she's now an awful lot closer - "dendle".

    Now mummy just needs to learn more signs to keep up with her demand for new input!

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  • 6. At 00:58am on 13 Jun 2010, Sunny Clouds wrote:

    Greta - I use the phrase hearing impaired quite a lot to describe what I have. There's no other phrase that covers the whole range of, well, hearing impairment, because we lack a single other word for it. If you say Deaf, people assume you can't hear anything and if you say hard of hearing, people think they just have to speak a bit louder. If you speak of hearing loss, it implies that you had it to begin with, which may not be the case. If you speak of a hearing disability, it buys into the medical model, and personally I prefer the social model.

    I can't think of a phrase that is equivalent and conveys the same information. Can you?

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  • 7. At 3:51pm on 13 Jun 2010, squitchtweak wrote:

    Sunny - a lot of the hearing impaired kids who went to my school referred to themselves as deaf, with a lower case 'd' rather than 'Deaf' which is used by sign language users who are usually severely or profoundly deaf (from my understanding - correct me if I'm wrong!)

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  • 8. At 2:13pm on 14 Jun 2010, ChristineWa wrote:

    I took my son to Sing & Sign for social reasons mostly. However I was amazed that between 8 months and until he could convey his wishes by speech that he started using some of the signs he had learned. Mostly "more" and "sweet"! I firmly believe this avoided many frustrations and that it helped, not hindered his speech. Now at the age of 3.5 he uses signs to emphasise the few words I do not pick up on from him. Sing & Sign actually led to me taking up BSL (now at the end of L2) as I saw how brilliantly signs allow communication in a world where otherwise it is difficult if not impossible, and then a change in career to working for a deaf charity.

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  • 9. At 5:59pm on 16 Jun 2010, Alison wrote:

    @Sunny Clouds how come you're classing deaf people on what they cannot do? My existence goes well beyond my ear? It impacts communication and identity too.

    Deaf suffices as fine. Most deaf organisations use it, apart from those who are must cure centric.

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  • 10. At 5:23pm on 16 Jun 2010, mostynthomas wrote:

    Thanks Charlie for a lovely article.

    I must say though that it makes me anxious (through no fault of your own) about my own daughter Isobel's signing skills. She is suspected to have cerebral palsy which means, at nearly 12 months, she is still not yet crawling, standing, or cruising, never mind walking, and sitting progress is slow. She is also perfecting her grasp so is a long way from actually forming hand shapes. And it's not like we haven't been signing to her every day.

    I think it is important for everyone to know that sign development in babies come from a combination of cognition, language and motor ability, so if any one of these areas is delayed in development this is likely to affect their signing skills. I have had to learn this the hard way as doctors are not really able to advise on sign development.

    I am aware of parenting forums that cover issues about crawling, standing etc but does anyone know of any online forums (ideally deaf) that also discuss signing concerns? It would certainly alleviate my own worries, as I am desperate to know for sure if Isobel will ever sign at all. Thank you for your attention in this matter.

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