How valuable is baby sign language?

A friend invited me to come along to her Sing and Sign class back when Talitha was nine months or so, I think. I went along mainly because it sounded like a fun structured thing Bristol offered and because I wanted to spend more time with my friend. I wasn’t too sure about baby sign language, mind. I mean, would it actually work?

Most of the way through the course, Talitha wasn’t signing at all. When I saw other babies in the class sign, their gestures seemed more like approximations than signs. You had to want to see the signs, really. Still, I continued to use the signs at home and counted the class worthwhile mainly because Talitha so obviously loved the music and Jessie Cat.

Then towards the end, she suddenly began to sign “Eat”. I wondered if it was a fluke so I tried to contain my excitement. But when I gave her some food, she practically cheered me for understanding her. From then, new signs kept being added. She also began to ask me to name and sign things. It was an amazing insight into what she thought was important: “cat”, “dog”, “drink” and, naturally, “milk”.

I couldn’t believe how much she understood. I still can’t. It blows me away that she can identify and sign some colours, most animals, vehicles and even feelings. If she weren’t signing as much as she does, I wouldn’t realise how many connections are rapidly being made in her mind.

As the months wore on, though, I got a little concerned that though she was signing lots, she still had very few words. I wondered about her hearing. A few people suggested that the fact that she could communicate by sign meant she wasn’t motivated to learn to speak. I’ve never agreed with this. We have always said the words while signing and sign has been shown to aid language development.

Rather, I think if we hadn’t been signing all this time, I’d have a frustrated toddler who wanted to make herself understood but couldn’t. How wonderful it is that she’s been able to picture read her books to me for a long time. On our daily walks she can tell me about everything she sees.

And, as many said would happen, in the last few weeks, 21-month-old Talitha has experienced a language explosion. Everyday she’s adding many words to her vocabulary (and many signs too!). Sometimes she’ll say a word and if she thinks I haven’t understood, she’ll repeat it with the sign. It’s very helpful for sounds that she’s still refining so aren’t yet clear. She also uses signs when she’s emphatic about something, especially when she’s yelling: “No! No! No!”

I’m grateful for what baby sign language has given us. Sing and Sign has been a brilliant way to learn it, both through the classes and the DVDs that we sign our way through together. It’s been so easy to “get it” and the content and structure is so well-catered to babies and toddlers.

I’d love to do it again with another child – and that’s coming from someone who feels ridiculous singing nursery rhymes in a room full of strangers.

Over to you. I’d love to hear about your baby sign language experiences.