Teaching Sign Language to Children Who Are Too Young to Speak

I recently received the following e-mail from a customer who is learning Spanish with our program.

“We have an au pair coming from Madrid in April to help care for our first newborn due then. We intend to raise
our children bilingual in both Spanish and English.”

First, I congratulated him on his good judgment. Then I suggested that he tell his friends that he was using the Angelina Jolie French learning method for teaching his children Spanish.

Hiring foreign au pairs and using foreign-language caregivers is a great way to help your child learn a foreign language. If you are doing that, keep doing it.

However, is there anything you can do that will help the linguistic development of children who are old enough to crawl, but not yet old enough to talk? Probably so.

Sign Language for Toddlers?

Children usually develop skill with the larger muscles used for crawling and walking much sooner than they develop skill with the small muscles used for speaking.

This results in a child who can move around the house under his own power, but who can’t tell you that he’s hungry. It’s a recipe for frustration.

I don’t have children, so I can’t verify that this works, but teaching your pre-verbal children a few signs, like “eat,” “milk,” “more,” and “all done” certainly can’t hurt and might help.

I see the biggest benefit from this approach as reducing frustration of the little child and Mom. And anything that reduces frustration will improve learning of all kinds, including learning a foreign language later.

If you have (or will soon have) a small child, check out these signs to teach a child who can’t yet speak.

  • Brent,

    Great blog post! You are so right that exposure to language is the most important way to learn it – whether it is the first or second or third language, and whether spoken or signed. Our children learn what they hear and what they see.

    By the way, signs are also a great bridge in multi-lingual environments. The signs are a visual representation of the same word or concept in both (or all) languages spoken in the home or pre-school. So for those using the Angelina Jolie method, as you call it, add signs to the mix for an extra boost.

    If you want an easy way to get started with signs, take a look at my Words by the Handful Stories – – just published! They teach you and your child the most important first signs through another beneficial activity: reading aloud to your child. They’re cute and fun stories on their own, too. And no previous signing knowledge required.

    Good luck to all your readers and their little ones! Thanks, Brent!

  • Brent,

    Re your question: Do the children of deaf parents typically begin to sign at a younger age than other children begin to speak?

    All children (who are exposed to and ‘taught’ sign language) can sign earlier than they can speak. It takes a long time for the 40+ muscles of the vocal tract to develop to the point of speech. On the other hand, the cognitive functions of the brain that want to express themselves develop much earlier. Signs allow children to express themselves even before they can speak – and, as you mention, one of the most obvious results is reduced frustration for babies and moms and dads.

    The phenomenon of ‘baby’ sign language uses a select group of signs from American Sign Language (ASL) with hearing children to help bridge the communication gap as speech develop. Yes, there are some methods and resources who use non-ASL, but ASL is a true language, allowing communication with a wider community. The benefits to hearing children are tremendous. Signing with non-hearing children is vital, and signing with speech delayed children, and children with special needs is widely used, and very important.

    Children of Deaf Adults (CODA – as they are known and call themselves), often have a different early language experience than children of hearing parents, especially if their parents do not speak at all. When signing is the natural first language of the home, CODA are exposed to signing early and with full vocabularies. Many hearing CODAs learn to sign in the home as their first language, and learn speech when they enter pre-school or other non-deaf environments.

    On the other hand, for hearing parents who are using sign language as a bridge to language development, the vocabularies tend to be more limited to the child’s interests and needs. Words fill in the rest, and also reinforce the signs. This limited vocabulary is a huge help to children and those who love and care for them. In fact, with only a handful of words, your child’s little world can be vastly different. Words by the Handful is designed on that premise. Don’t be overwhelmed, just get started and use a few. Language is a natural progression for babies, and parents can incorporate signing a little at a time, and add (or not) as they want or need to.

    The most incredibly pleasant language learning (love your tag line) I can think of is the talking (and signing, too) to babies and toddlers and introducing them to the wonders of the world. We are all natural language learners from the start – our brains are wired for it. Talk, talk, talk…. (even when you’re signing, too!) and then talk some more.

  • Brent Van Arsdell
    Brent Van Arsdell

    Thanks Mimi for your comments. Hopefully parents who want their children to grow up and speak several languages can get them started with some signs.

    If you have or soon will have small children, visit Mimi’s baby sign language site to learn more about it.

  • Avatar
    Andrew Funai

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

    • Avatar

      Thanks Andrew! I’m sure Brent will be putting something fascinating up again soon. He’s off exploring again now!


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