Baby signs

This piece was written in 1995-1997, when my daughter was small. “Baby signs” have become more popular with hearing parents with hearing children nowadays and I thought I would post this again. My observation of our experience is that we used her signs until she picked up ours. We did not badger her with repetitive signs in a gestural version of “you can say Ma-ma can’t you?” Instead, we used the advantage of deafness to be attuned to her signs. As you will see, she started producing purposeful gestures before she had control of her hands! Those gestures would quite surely have been extinguished if we did not reward them with a response.

Being deaf in a hearing family was perpetually disconcerting, but I didn’t expect to always understand what was going on. Being a parent would be a different story. I had never been able to understand children speaking, and was truthfully a little afraid of them. For a long time, it was not an issue, beyond trying to comprehend the limited conversations I had with children in the extended family. Then we heard Baby was on the way. The biggest worry I had was how I would understand Baby when she arrived. What if I got a kid of my own and was doomed for the next 18 years to have one of these incomprehensible beings in my home? The worst fate, we imagined, would be for her not to understand we can’t hear as well as we speak. If adults can’t get this simple fact through their heads, how can a baby? There were few experiences to draw on, because although most deaf people we knew had hearing children, they did not have the same situation as ours. Either there was one hearing parent in the couple, or both deaf parents were primarily sign communicators. We even discussed this during our prenatal visit with the pediatrician (who told us we were thinking too much), and (after considerable thought anyway) we planned to use only signs except when reading books to her. All that intention went out the window when she was born, and we were sometimes just too tired to sign, and it took all our energy just to voice soothing babytalk to her.

It didn’t yet seem too scary, because no one was expecting Baby to say anything or to absorb much about the form of communication. It was nice enough that she had the good grace to smile at people who peered into her carriage. There were a lot of those, since she came to my office daily for her first six months, sleeping and eating as I worked on the computer, going to class with daddy when I had to teach, and sometimes entertaining a babysitter in my office when both of us were tied up. She saw a lot of sign language used around her, with the large deaf population on campus, whenever we went to the cafeteria, when she went to classes, when we encountered friends at the store: she saw us signing to many other people as well as to each other. We tried to sign as much as possible to her also, even though to us it seemed impossible that it would make any sense to her. After all, neither of us had any exposure to sign language for our first 20 years.

I was, consequently, amazed on the day when Baby stared straight into my eye with a very purposeful gaze. Then she protruded her tongue just a little, and held it there while maintaining eye contact, with a rather expectant expression. I was sure that she was trying to say something but this wasn’t a sign we showed her. Then I noticed the circumstance: she was in her crib, she was sleepy, and she did not have her pacifier. She did not yet have the motor control to locate the pacifier in the crib herself. I saw it off to one side and put it to her mouth, and she bit at it with a satisfied expression, closed her eyes, turned her head to the side, and fell immediately to sleep. She was three months old.

She got quite a bit of use out of that sign, and then stopped using it when she got the motor control to run her fingers down the tether ribbon, turn the thing around and stick it in her own mouth. A year later, she started using it again. She had become a normal, highly mobile toddler and didn’t always have a pacifier clipped on all the time. To ask for a pacifier that Mommy or Daddy might have in a pocket, her old sign came in handy.

Her first real sign came out in an appropriate place. She and I were waiting to receive our order in McDonald’s, but not our usual branch. She was sitting in the high chair facing toward the counter, as I was. She turned to look me directly in the eye, and signed ICE CREAM. She was not eating people-food yet, but she occasionally shared a bit of vanilla “low fat frozen dessert” with Daddy in our regular McDonald’s. I was impressed not only with the sign and the deliberate way she addressed it to me, but the recognition that this McDonald’s was related to the McDonald’s she regularly had ice cream at. She was six months old.

Soon, she was signing MILK both on her own and in response to being asked verbally or in signs if she wanted milk.

When she stopped using the bottle, she also stopped signing MILK. She began to use a sign of “sipping” on her index finger, as though drinking from a straw, to refer to any beverage served with a straw. To get a beverage that comes in a cup (such as at home) she would beckon us to the kitchen and point at the cupboard where the cups are stored. It seemed that her mental classification of beverages was not according to taste (milk, juice, water) but according to container.

At day care, she gained reinforcement for many signs we used. At about 12 months, she started to pick up signs very rapidly. We were selling MOMMY and DADDY really hard, and it was pretty impossible for her not to learn them, both expressive and receptive. Her day care teacher told us one day while playing at something, she babbled on for a long spell, both sign and voice: “mommydaddy mommydaddy…” Of course, MORE was particularly useful. To her, this meant more, of anything, and juice, even if she hadn’t already had any. (Rather like the Mad Hatter to Alice: “it’s easy to have more than nothing.”)

Just past her first birthday, it was Christmas-decoration time in the local McDonald’s, and near our favourite table, there was a pair of reindeer made out of dried grapevines, one standing, one recumbent, festooned with ribbons and glittery garland. She was fascinated with them and picked up the sign DEER on her first acquaintance. She then proceeded to sign DEER (with index fingers rather than thumbs, the same as most babies interpret the mommy/daddy signs) every time she saw a deer or moose.

She also absorbed the idea of written words. One day I observed her sitting on the floor beside the empty carton a new computer printer had come in. She was pointing at the written label with her left hand, while moving her right hand’s fingers as if to fingerspell, and moving her lips as if she was reading. She looks at this story on the web browser and does the same fingerspelling when she sees her name at the top, and she just loves the fingerspelled graphic at the side.

Beyond learning sign language, she’s also shown some absorption of deaf culture. One day just before 18 months, Daddy and I were talking at the kitchen sink when behind us there came the two quick thumps of a deaf stomp (the technique of creating floor vibration to get attention of someone who isn’t looking). Knowing only Baby was with us, we both turned to look at her. She grinned and picked up her right foot to stomp again, except her little sock slipped out from under her after the first stomp and she landed on her bottom, and we all laughed. It was uncanny, though, how she captured the precise cadence (if not the balance) to create the classic deaf stomp. We also learned that she and another daycare classmate with deaf parents have been saying goodbye to each other with the “deaf hug”.

As 18 months approached, she understood that gestures were linguistic symbols, and once she figured a sign’s meaning, she would repeat it over and over to practice. Immersed in a McDonaldland ball-pit, she had the epiphany about the sign for BALL, and for roughly the next 36 hours, she sought out, pointed at, and blabbered (sign and voice) about balls, anything spheroid, from grapes to balloons. She also perplexed us for a week with a sign that looked like an index-finger version of GUM, while pointing at grapes, including a plastic fruit display and a tiffany lamp design. The mystery cleared up when we realized that we had been giving her white grape juice and apple juice interchangeably, and she had obviously associated the picture on the label with the APPLE sign, then produced the sign a little inaccurately. She had the placement and movement right but the contact at the fingertip rather than the knuckle.

We also saw indications of interpreting and what you might call code switching. We would ask her by voice something like “are you sleepy?” and she would echo back the sign BED (often with NO appended).

Baby’s 12-18 month sign for eat/food wasn’t the tidy handshape of the adult sign. Rather, it matched her actual hand movements of eating, which can best be described as an open palm smearing the food down into her gaping maw. She expressed her first compound sign or phrase at about 17 months, as we were driving through that familiar intersection past (what else?) McDonald’s. She pointed in the direction of the arches and signed: CLOWN FOOD. Soon after, several other phrases would come spilling out: “BIRDS WHERE” “WANT CHEESE” “TOOTHBRUSH FINISH” and other highly toddler-relevant concepts. At about 18 months, she also stopped signing and saying bye-bye to foods she was finished with and started to use the proper ASL sign FINISH.

Her confidence and creativity with sign communication also often exceeds mine. One day she approached me appearing to be making the BIRD sign beside both eyes. When I didn’t understand, she gave me the “huh where is it?” pointed shrug, and proceeded to rummage around in the assorted toys nearby, emerging with a pair of sunglasses she had received at day care as a party favour. At the outer upper corners, there was a small bird head. And she had decided that the proper sign for these glasses was BIRDS-AT-THE-TEMPLES!

One of her favourite activities is looking at pictures of herself. She has signs for some familiar pictures and often asks for specific ones. A spaghetti-face picture (every parent has one), she calls [smearing hand downward, twice, on either side of her mouth]. When she sees me sitting at the computer, she often comes over to get on my lap and signs [spaghetti-face]. Other times, she signs daddy or mommy to say she wants to see daddy’s web page or mommy’s. Or, she gets her photo album and makes it a game for me to find a specific picture, turning to another page as soon as I find it and then asking for the same picture again. A picture of herself in very approximate face-paint intended to look like a cat, she signs CAT.

Zero to 50 in 18 months:

Some of her favourite signs (that we’ve noticed so far):
Foods: cookie, cheese, cracker, birdie/chicken (she doesn’t seem conscious at all that she’s asking to eat the same sign as her favourite live species/stuffed friend), apple, drink-through-a-straw, icecream,
Animals: bird/duck/chicken, dog, cat, fish, horse, deer/moose, cow, pig (Canadian and US versions), frog, bear
Qualities: done (finish), red, blue, dirty, more, yes, no, up, down, smiling (describing picture in baby-faces book)
Activities: bath, toothbrush, book, car, ball, game, bed
Objects: coat (meaning literally coat, and also meaning “I’m quite ready to go now, thank you.”), home, clown, flower, socks, hat, diaper, pacifier, baby, mommy, daddy, [her own name]
Verbs: want, eat, drink, love/hug, fly (approximate classifier, as airplane), fly (flapping like bird)

19 Month update

wipes [signed: in-here (the empty wipes box), wipes, what-happened-to-them?]; cherry (also convinced tomato is a cherry); where?
Speaks names of all her classmates; “cereal please”.
Clearly understands signed story with classifiers: “There is a tree. The bird is flying. The bird lands on the branch. The cat runs up the tree and sits on the branch. The bird flies away.” There was such an expression of excitement on her face when she realized that the image was in her imagination and she was really looking at fingers, not a real bird in a real tree.

22 months

I think Baby understands everything people say! She can follow instructions (if it suits her) to close the fridge door, or put the bottle in the garbage, or react contrary to instructions, like hiding in a distant corner if “let’s change your diaper” conflicts with her own plans. She avidly studies the Sesame Street Sign language ABC with Linda Bove book (ISBN 0-394-87516-8) in the car and around the house.

Documenting her words and signs is harder because she adds them so readily and rapidly and uses them in combinations a lot. Here are some, anyway.

  • Food: hamburger, hot dog, banana
  • Animals: giraffe, lion, tiger (also used when she sees Tiger Woods and sometimes another golfer on TV), monkey, horse, bunny, bug, snail, squirrel, beaver, seal, alligator
  • Parrot. One day, about 20 months, she just stopped calling her stuffed parrot “birdie” and started making the sign for parrot and saying the word parrot to refer to him. She identifies the parrots on her wall calendar as parrots, and still calls other birds bird.
  • Qualities: wet, big
  • Orange (for the colour and the juice), yellow, blue, red, white; she can identify the colours if asked, or will just speak up with “car red” or “white bird”
  • same, different
  • please, thank you, good
  • yes (nodding fist sign)
  • Activities: wash (hands)
  • don’t want (to) [voice]
  • dress/dressed/clothes
  • open (differently for open of a packet/ziploc bag and open of subway doors)
  • swing, eat, work (Daddy work)
  • bathroom (to describe where Daddy is, beyond the closed men’s room door: her own sign: standing with knees bent, patting her diaper, pointing at door)
  • Objects: Money, including “want money”, and “Hey! Want money”, the latter shouted at a cafeteria cashier as we sat eating our food at a nearby table
  • book, table, chair, blanket, shoes, eye (also calls Mommy’s glasses eyes)
  • moon, water, rain (also refers to umbrella, shower, and weather radar map showing rain)
  • boy (but not girl yet–if she sees a girl and a boy, she will just say boys)
  • helicopter, rocket, car, truck, motorcycle, bicycle, train, b-u-s (fingerspelled version)
  • Charlie (name sign), D-B (when watching Donovan Bailey)
  • Elmo [voice]
  • Recognizes letter of her name initial and points to it and says/signs her name
  • Canada (can recognize Canadian flag, including graphic-arts permutations of it) and signs Canada when she sees it. Also can sign flag
  • mine, you, yours
  • Verbs: walk, like, look for

Baby also shows continuing indications of interpreting between the languages. She had taken to asking for her favourite summer snack (Ice-pops, of course) in both sign and voice as “blue, please” (because the first one she had was blue). One day, I told her she could have an icicle after I changed her diaper, and I picked her up to take her to the changing table. While lying on the table, she began to sign “bicycle” and “please” and “want” and led me back to the refrigerator, pointing at the freezer continuing to sign and say “bicycle”. It seemed she just switched from calling them “blue” to either bicycle or the sign I tried to teach her for ice-pop. Since then, she has only asked for a “blue” when I played especially obtuse about her request for her fifth “bicycle”. She still seems to think “bicycle” is better, and isn’t the least bit confused which bicycle is for eating and which is for riding.

At two

It’s fairly impossible to enumerate her vocabulary any more. She can recognize, speak, and sign all the basic colours, can recognize shapes, can recognize, speak, and fingerspell about 1/3 of the alphabet, can count to ten sometimes (by voice), can sign the names of most animals, forms of transportation, and major sports, and carries on all kinds of conversations with her little toy friends. She’ll string together several signs and words that make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, it is usually because one of the key words required a little more precise fine motor control than she has. It’s not so much about vocabulary now as it is about logic and sentences, and exploding motor skills. She has a large library of schema now: e.g. [on seeing a reflecting pool at the mall] “Give me money, please…. Sure you have money, Mommy, it’s in your pockets,” etc. Baby is an enthusiastic mimic of movements, whether they are signs, Daddy’s karate kata (complete with the shouts, and the bow at the end), a Sesame Street kid’s somersault, or a Jenny Craig weight loss commercial actress’ flamboyant movements to show off her slim figure. I think the early exposure to the importance of precise movement (for communication) contributed to the attention she pays to copying other movements closely.

Postscript 2007: I had a cochlear implant by the time she was five. At that point, I responded more to her spoken communication, and her expressive signing virtually extinguished. Of course, the CI does not enable me to hear perfectly, nor do I want to wear it all the time, and I have consequently spent the last seven years trying to get her to sign like she did when she was a baby. Her receptive skills are still perfect. You can’t put anything past her.

Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (, and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.