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Use Sign Language to Communicate With Your Hearing Baby Before They Can Talk – An Overview of Why to Use American Sign Language (ASL)

Use Sign Language to Communicate With Your Hearing Baby Before They Can Talk – An Overview of Why to Use American Sign Language (ASL)

Learning Tips   |  Thursday, August 6, 2015

By Jillian Winn

Babies have thoughts and feelings they want to communicate with you much sooner than they develop the verbal skills to be able to express those thoughts through speech.

How Babies Communicate

Newborn waivingMy son waiving his hands at about one week old.

Babies communicate by crying differently in different circumstances, cooing and smiling in response to you, making baby-babble sounds, making facial expressions, mimicking your gestures, waiving their hands, and squeezing your fingers. There are theories and even products to help parents analyze their baby’s cries, but you don’t have to be a baby whisperer to understand what your baby is trying to communicate if you give them tools to express themselves in a way you can understand – baby sign language.

On average, babies don’t start to say words until around 1 year old. However, their cognitive skills for thinking, feeling, and recognizing action and reaction develop much earlier. They also develop hand-eye coordination at an earlier age – first they squeeze your finger and eventually they point, wave, and mimic your gestures.

Babies naturally use their hands and facial expressions to communicate. Both of my sons, like many babies, would pucker their lips into an “O,” tilt their head to the side, and punch their little fist in the air when they were hungry. They are instinctively looking for the breast or bottle, but they are also clearly communicating through their hands and facial expressions.

Because babies are able to make and mimic gestures, they are able to learn baby sign language and use it to communicate before they can talk.

Signing with Hearing Babies

Baby sign language is the use of signs to communicate with infants and toddlers. It’s not its own language. When you teach signs to a baby, often you would use American Sign Language (if you are in the United States or Canada where American Sign Language is used, otherwise you would use the sign language used in your region, such as British Sign Language or French Sign Language), but some people use other types of sign language or even use modified or made-up signs. Of course, we recommend using American Sign Language (ASL).

There are many advantages to using ASL when teaching your hearing baby to sign. It is a real language. Because it is a real language, other people are familiar with the signs, there is no need to “remember” a made-up sign, and there are resources to use to look up signs (Signing Savvy, of course!).

Knowing ASL is also fun for children when they see others using it. As the child grows up, they may meet deaf peers or other people who know ASL. Some preschools and daycares are beginning to incorporate sign language into their curriculum and it is becoming more common to see ASL in popular media, such as commercials, television shows, and movies.

Benefits of Signing

There are many benefits of being able to communicate with your baby using sign language before they can talk. Research studies have found parents who sign with their infants and toddlers reported:

  • Fewer tantrums1
  • Better social skills1
  • Less frustration (from both children and parents)1
  • Less parenting-related stress2 3
  • More affectionate interactions2 3
  • Easier time responding to upset children2 3

Research studies have found that signing activates the area of the brain that makes learning a new word easier4 5 and infants and toddlers that used signs had better language skills than children that did not use signs.6 7 They found children who used signs:

  • Had larger vocabularies and understood and used more words5
  • Used longer sentences5
  • Had a higher Verbal IQ8

Of course, the greatest immediate benefit is that your baby is able to communicate with you and you are able to understand them. 

We started signing with our first son when he was born.  MILK is the first sign he started to use and the sign that he would use most often (he still has an addiction to milk at the age of 2.5 years old!).  He would use some signs, but I remember clearly the first time he used sign to really make a strong statement. I had given him a sippy cup with water in it.  He instantly started to cry, dramatically threw the sippy cup on the ground, and forcefully raised his fist in the air and began repeatedly signing milk.  His actions, combined with his signing, made his message very clear: “Mom, this water is not going to cut it. I want milk!!”  So although he had a mini tantrum, it was short-lived because I knew he wasn’t frustrated just because he didn’t want water, but because we wanted milk – and NOW!

Although most useful for understanding our son’s desires, signing was also a great way for us to learn and practice vocabulary together and get a glimpse into his thoughts.  One example is we would use animal signs when reading books with animals and when playing with animal toys.  Because he wasn’t talking yet, it was hard to know if he was learning the animal names, but we were happily surprised when we went to the zoo and he was excitedly signing all of the animals to us as we saw each new animal.


It’s easy to start signing with your baby and it’s amazing to be able to communicate with them through sign before they are able to talk.

To get started, simply use signs when communicating with your child. There isn’t a “right” way or specific order to learning or teaching signs, just start by picking signs that make the most sense in the context of your baby’s life.


  1. Acredolo, L. & Goodwyn, S. (2002). Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. Chicago: Contemporary Books.
  2. Gongora, X. & Farkas C. (2009). Infant sign language program effects on synchronic mother-infant interactions. Infant Behavior & Development, 32, 216-225.
  3. Vallotton, C. (2012). Infant signs as intervention? Promoting symbolic gestures for preverbal children in low-income families supports responsive parent-child relationships. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(3), 401-415.
  4. Kelly, S., McDevitt, T., and Esch, M. (2009). Brief training with co-speech gesture lends a hand to word learning in a foreign language. Language and Cognitive Processes, 24(2), 313-334.
  5. Xu, J., Gannon, P., Emmorey, K., Smith, J., & Braun, A. (2009). Symbolic gestures and spoken language are processed by a common neural system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(49), 20664-20669.
  6. Goodwyn, S. & Acredolo L. (1993). Symbolic gesture versus word: Is there a modality advantage for onset of symbol use? Child Development, 64(3): p. 688-701.
  7. Goodwyn, S., Acredolo, L., & Brown, A. L. (2000). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior, 24(2), 81-103.
  8. Acredolo, L. & Goodwyn, S. (2000). The long-term impact of symbolic gesturing during infancy on IQ at age 8. International Society for Infant Studies. Brighton, U.K.


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Interpreter Q & A: How to Handle Sexism in the Classroom (and, Therefore, the Workplace)

Interpreter Q & A: How to Handle Sexism in the Classroom (and, Therefore, the Workplace)

Interpreter Tips   |  Sunday, July 26, 2015

By Brenda Cartwright

This article is by Brenda Cartwright. Brenda is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, and well known presenter. Brenda is the "Dear Abby" for the interpreting world - author of the Dear Reality column in the VIEWS publication from Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the book Encounters With Reality: 1001 Interpreter Scenarios. She will be contributing blog articles for Signing Savvy on interpreting, Deaf culture, and answering a series of "Dear Brenda" interpreter questions.

Dear Brenda,

I interpret in a technology class where I am the only female in the room. The students often make crude remarks about women and the class always looks over at me and cracks up while I interpret them. I can see my Deaf client is embarrassed for me, but he laughs along with the rest of them.

Singled Out

An Experienced Interpreter's Perspective:

In any classroom, the teacher bears responsibility for controlling student behavior, whether it’s kindergarten or graduate school. I would approach this problem as a discipline issue. If you talk about this issue by placing the focus on yourself - on how you feel or how this behavior is hurting you - statements like that leave room for others to suggest that you are too sensitive, or that "boys will be boys." Instead, talk about the class behavior in terms of outcome: it is disruptive, impedes the student’s access to instructional material, and impedes the interpreting process. Use words that carry legal impact.

Always talk to the teacher first. The field of education is fraught with politics, and it is better to begin the problem solving process in the classroom. If that fails, then the next step is to ask to talk to your immediate supervisor (not the teacher’s). Your supervisor should handle the matter from there. Be clear in what you expect. I would ask my supervisor to have the classroom discipline issue dealt with. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, I would then ask my supervisor to move me to another class, since I cannot perform effectively in a hostile work environment.

Experienced Deaf Consumer's Perspective:

In a perfect world, the deaf client will speak up in the interpreter’s defense and scold the class for making crude remarks about women in general, and specifically you, the interpreter. But in today’s real world, the way to handle this is for the female interpreter to lodge a formal protest with the teacher about the boorish behavior of the class (including the deaf client who laughed along with the rest of them). Hopefully, the teacher will be able to handle this situation. However, if the teacher is not able to do so, then file a harassment complaint. Why? We do have harassment laws and if we do not invoke on those laws protecting people, harassment of any form or substance will continue to no end. It is high time to make our laws work so that we can all live in a perfect world.

Have you experienced this problem too? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the Author

Brenda CartwrightBrenda Cartwright is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, well known presenter, and author of several best selling sign language and interpreting textbooks from the RID Press. For the last 30 years Brenda has been the Chair of the Sign Language Interpreter Program at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.

More about Brenda  |  Articles by Brenda

Tweet Explained: Don't make up signs

Tweet Explained: Don't make up signs

Deaf Culture   |  Thursday, July 16, 2015

By Signing Savvy Sign Language Advisory Board

We are constantly posting tips, facts, and learning resources related to sign language and Deaf culture on our Twitter @SigningSavvy. Occasionally we get questions about our tweets and explain them further with a followup article, like this one.

@SigningSavvy Tweet:


A tweet can only be 255 characters, so they tend to convey general information and often do not go into detail or include specifics. We went straight to our Sign Language Advisory Board with this question so we could get a variety of opinions and some clarity on this topic.

The Advisory Board agreed: Hearing people should not make up signs.

However, there are some exceptions for when creating signs is acceptable. Advisory Board Member Suellen Bahleda said, "There is an essential difference in 'making up signs' and creating agreed upon contextual-use signs for a particular time and context."

Like any language, sign language evolves over time and, of course, new vocabulary is accepted as part of sign language. So who is able to and when is it generally appropriate to create signs? Here are a few examples…

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community

Sign Language is the language of the Deaf. As a community, the Deaf do make new signs, that is how sign language evolves. Hearing people or a single deaf person would not create a new sign and expect for it to be universally accepted.

“New signs come into being all the time. The technical field is one glowing example of this. The signs coming from college students at Gallaudet are just amazing. We see signs today that we did not see 20 years ago and we don't see signs that were in use 40 and 50 years ago. This is the natural evolution of any language. But it must come from within the community. One person alone cannot invent a sign that must automatically be accepted by the whole community. Most often it is a sign that evolves from one situation and then gets generalized and accepted.” - Advisory Board Member Diane Morton

Name Signs

Names are fingerspelled. You do not invent your own name sign. Members of the Deaf community often give each other sign names. There are two kinds of name signs: descriptive and arbitrary. Name signs often include the first letter of your name, plus a descriptive feature about yourself. For example, if you have curly hair, your sign name may be a combination of the first letter of your name and the sign for curly hair. Some names are arbitrary, rather than descriptive, and are simply the first letter of your name signed in one of the accepted locations.

Culturally, it is not appropriate to pick your own sign name and only Deaf people assign sign names. Even if you have a name sign, when introducing yourself, you would still spell your full name first and then show the sign name. Once people know who you are talking about, the sign name makes it easier and more personal to refer to the person during the conversation.

Descriptive name signs are sometimes given to hearing sign language students for use in the classrooms. They should not be used outside of class.

Find out more in our article on Signing People’s Names

Home Signs (and Baby Signs)

Home signs, also sometimes called kitchen signs, are signs made up at home. Deaf children with hearing parents who are isolated from a sign language community may use many made up home signs because they don’t have access to learn real sign language. As they get access to a sign language community, they usually learn and adopt the real signs and no longer use the home signs they made up prior to having limited access to sign language.

In general, it is frowned upon to use made up or home signs because sign language is a real language and its vocabulary is its signs. Similarly, when speaking English, it is proper to use English words and not make up new words. There are new English words that become accepted as part of the language, but just as with sign language, it is after they have become widely accepted and commonly used.

However, as one of our Sign Language Advisory Board Members said, “I think we all might have home made or baby signs that we only use with family members in specific context.” Signs created with family members are are not meant to be publicly used. An English example of this could be if you have a special made-up name or term you use for a child’s blanket - you may use that term at home and your family members know exactly which blanket you are referring to, but in public you probably just call it a blanket.

Missing or Non-Existent Signs

If there is a sign, you would always use the sign and never make up a new or different sign. However, there isn’t a sign for every English word. New signers sometimes think there isn’t a sign because they are stuck on thinking about the English word instead of the meaning of the word. First you would always think about the meaning that is trying to be conveyed to think if there is a sign that you can use in context of what you are trying to say. If there isn’t a sign, then you would finger spell the word. 

One concern with making up signs is that even someone who knows sign language, may not know every sign, especially if they are not part of a sign language community where they sign regularly. There may be a sign for the meaning they are trying to convey and either they can’t recall what it is or they are unaware that there is already a sign for it.

Rather than make up a sign:

  1. Consult the Signing Savvy dictionary. Double check the sign type, sign notices, and as-in meaning to make sure it is appropriate for your given usage. If you can't find the word, look for words with similar meanings.
  2. Consult with individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing and part of a sign language community.
  3. When in doubt, finger spell the word. 

Short Term Contextual Usage

There are some times when signs may be created and used for a specific contextual use for a particular time and context. Examples include during a class, team events, or work projects. 

Several of our Sign Language Advisory Board members contributed thoughts on this type of sign creation. Here are some great takeaways:

  1. There is an essential difference in 'making up signs' and creating agreed upon contextual-use signs for a particular time and context.
  2. Two people or a small group agree on usage: An interpreter and deaf consumer, or small team working together, work together to create the signs. Agreed upon representational sign(s) are sometimes created for complicated, but mutually understood terms.
  3. Used only temporary and for a specific purpose only: There is an understanding between the interpreter and deaf consumer, or small team of people working together that the sign(s) are only to be used temporarily for the specific purpose they were created for. So, for example, once the class or work project is over, you would no longer use the signs you created.
  4. Defining signs as purposeful, agreed-upon, and bearing an expiration date frames the signs and their usage as intentional, contextual, and shared, rather than (somewhat paradoxically) random and regular.
  5. Creating signs under these circumstances isn’t a true instance of “making up signs” because you are not trying to use them as a regular part of sign language, they are created by or in collaboration with at least one deaf person, and you are setting parameters for the signs’ usage in order to be respectful of sign language.


There are some circumstances where deaf and hard of hearing individuals may create new signs, but in general you should not make up signs. Just as people would think you were inappropriate if you made up English words, making up signs will get you funny looks as well.

Let us know whenever you have a question about one of our @SigningSavvy tweets and we would be happy to explain it further.  Just ask us on Twitter for clarification or use our contact form.


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The Role of the Interpreter in the Classroom

The Role of the Interpreter in the Classroom

Teaching Tips   |  Tuesday, June 9, 2015

By John Miller

Recently I sat down with a deaf high school student to discuss how things were going with her classes and her interpreter. She told me that her interpreter was doing well in her 1st hour class, but she said she was bored in her 2nd hour class because her interpreter was not "doing a good job there." I know this interpreter well and had observed her many times before. I have always known the interpreter to be very professional, so I decided to observe (unannounced) both 1st and 2nd hour and see if I could observe a difference.

The difference the deaf student was experiencing between the two hours was not the fault of the interpreter; it was a difference between the teaching styles of the two teachers. The interpreter was, in fact, doing a great job in both classes at conveying the style and the atmosphere of both classes. The first hour teacher was dynamic and the second hour teacher was dry and lackluster. I made sure to let the deaf student know that the information was being presented accurately in both situations.

There is a Code of Professional Conduct that interpreters must follow. This code was developed by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) to set high standards of professionalism and ethical conduct for interpreters. The interpreter was in fact doing her job very well and it would have been against the Code of Professional Conduct for her to alter the message from either teacher. The Code states that interpreters must "render the message faithfully by conveying the content and spirit of what is being communicated" (Tenet 2.3) and "refrain from providing personal opinions" (Tenet 2.5). By interpreting the first hour lesson more dynamically and the second hour lesson more lackluster, the interpreter was staying true to the content and spirit of what was communicated from each teacher, which is exactly what a good interpreter is supposed to do.

This is a unique problem I am sure many deaf students, interpreters, and administrators experience on a regular basis. Interpreters should stay true to the Code of Professional Conduct and interpret the message as it is conveyed. Situations like these can also be good educational opportunities. The majority of deaf children have hearing parents, so they may not be aware of deaf rights like the Code of Professional Conduct for interpreters, which not only sets standards for interpreters to follow, but helps to protect the deaf consumer. Explaining that the interpreter was accurately conveying the message of the teachers and introducing the student to the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct can help the student to better understand the role of the interpreter in the classroom and their rights as a deaf consumer.



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Great Sign Language Music Video Performance of Taylor Swift's Shake It Off

Great Sign Language Music Video Performance of Taylor Swift's Shake It Off

General Interest   |  Monday, May 11, 2015

By Jillian Winn

Check out this great sign language music video performance of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. The video was a collaboration between the Digital Media, Audio and Cinema Program and the Sign Language Interpreter Program at Lansing Community College (LCC). The production was student driven and took around four class periods to complete.

The performer, Sam, just finished LCC’s Sign Language Interpreter Program this week and plans to take her state certification test soon to become a certified interpreter in Michigan.

Sam originally performed this song at LCC's SYNC event, which is a performance where the cast (LCC Sign Language students) work with the faculty to interpret popular songs using sign language. Doretta Fowler, the Director of SYNC, explained the show is called SYNC because “We synchronize two cultures, two languages, and we do it simultaneously.” After she performed Shake It Up live at SYNC, Sam was selected to turn her performance into a music video. 

Sam had a lot of fun creating the music video. She said, “I was so surprised when I walked into the studio and saw all the cameras and the lights. I felt like I was a movie star!”

And just like Sam's 4-year-old niece (who chose the song), we think you will enjoy this great music video.

SHAKE IT OFF from theDMACprogram on Vimeo.


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