Baby Sign Language (BSL) is a method of communicating with a pre-verbal baby to bridge the gap between no speech and full speech.
Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn from the University of California’s Davis Center for Child and Family Studies – who have conducted and overseen research relating to BSL for two decades — reiterate findings that show that babies using BSL have an advantage over non-signers.
When used as an educational tool, BSL involves the introduction of new words accompanied by modelling, gestures, repetition of vocal sounds, imitations and visual stimulation. These include facial expressions and multi-media by the parent or teacher.
The concept of gestures, words and the showing of the real items, familiarise non-verbal children with concrete examples in order to improve their verbal performance. This concept has be tried, tested, showing that BSL can increase the vocabulary capacity and mature the child for more advanced cognitive skills – years after signing has stopped.
Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn have scientifically confirmed that a baby’s status of speech development — tested against a checklist of words reckoned to be spoken by a one to two year old, improves with BSL intervention. If no intervention takes place, you will find a slower verbal development or increase in new words by a baby.
BSL has also shown to improve verbal communication in the case where speech delay is perceived, or in the case of speech impairment disorders and autism in children.
Teaching baby signs, improves cognitive and emotional development, increases the rate of verbal development and strengthens the parent-child bond.
BSL is used to improve early childhood education and benefits of BSL can relate to the reduction of baby stress, which ultimately improves a child’s trust in the bonding relationship.
Studies show that 24 month old babies using BSL have — on average — the capacity of 27-28 month olds, and put longer sentences together. A 36 month old baby talks like a 47 month old, almost a full year ahead of average classmates. At age 8, children who’ve used BSL score a higher IQ.
Drs Acredolo and Goodwyn also reiterate the findings that indicate that BSL helps mothers to be more in-tune with their child’s emotions and increases trust, bonding and understanding with the child.
On the grounds of better understanding and firmer bonding, the child’s frustration level is significantly reduced, thus decreasing aggressive behaviour like biting. Furthermore, this purposeful and active learning intervention helps parent and teacher to observe and be more understanding and responsive towards the child’s needs. BSL also helps to reveal a baby’s world, it helps a baby to positively express her emotions as being happy or sad. It boosts the baby’s self-worth and self-confidence.
When do you start with BSL?
A baby’s first sign in communication is when she learns that crying brings food, comfort and companionship. Newborns recognise important sounds in the environment. As she grows, she begins to perceive and sort out speech sounds that compose the words of her language. The baby receives pleasure through her own production of sounds. Sound-making is reinforced and increased in frequency by her joy and the joy of the parent, as the baby works through her storehouse of sounds. By six months, babies recognise basic sounds of their native language.
A child has to progress to a stage where she can understand signs, has the motor skills to mimic gestures and has vocal output to express her needs. When a child’s motor control catches up with her desire to express herself, she is ready to learn to talk. To talk, babies must develop fine motor control over their vocal cords (studies show that we begin to get intelligible words from the age of 9-15 months. Factors like temperament, genetics, illness, stress and older siblings, have an impact on the developmental performance of a baby.
Expressive language only starts to show from the age of 2, this is when a word starts having a fundamental and concrete meaning. A baby learns motor skills like pulling and pushing to meet expressive desires. BSL gives her a great way to express her needs before she can talk.
The first 3 years of life, is when the brain’s development and maturing is at its most intensive period for acquiring speech and language skills. Consistent exposure to a world rich in sounds and sights, appears to highly impact on speech and language development.
Development of voice, gestures and language
According to a scientific checklist a 1 to 2 year old child:
- Knows few body-parts and can point at them
- Follows simple commands and understands simple questions
- Enjoys simple stories and songs
- Points to pictures, when named
- Uses new words regularly
- Uses a one or two word question
- Puts two words together
Parents of a new baby are ecstatic to hear their baby’s first word and cannot wait for the next. To speed up their child’s maturity level, that is, for the child’s to understand or be receptive and able to express her thoughts (mentally mature to verbalise), a parent can embark on BSL from about 8 months. Timing and techniques for language development are researched on an ongoing basis. Existing learning theories give a framework for predicting possible outcomes of various training procedures at certain age levels.
How to use BSL
BSL is a concrete and visual cue to the abstract spoken word and must be taught in context and should be consistent. It is easier using both hands when demonstrating the content of a BSL card. Include older children or family to help to participate e.g. while feeding or bathing the baby.
Be hospitable by opening the learning environment to adults and peers of your baby while serving food and beverages. Celebrate while you receive mutual interaction and give encouragement.
Gather the baby’s interest in the subject and keep the activity short and full of fun. Prevent the baby from getting bored by considering her attention span. Always remember to chart and celebrate progress.
Utilise flash cards by flashing an image of an apple and bring the real fruit into context. Be observant of what works the best. Incorporate multi-media, singing songs and games to encourage social skills and fun. The TV cartoon channels offer great educational stimulation through their use of bright vibrant colours and use of symbolic characters.
It helps to follow educational cues to make your cards. Make use of colour for differentiation and personalise the cards using, size and shape to code your objects which belong to one group.
Keep your child interested by going on field trips for experiential learning. This is meant to be fun, so relax if it takes a while.
How quick do you see results?
Progress depends on the developmental stage of a child. A 24 month old baby will probably show a notable increase in communication skills after a 21-30 day consistent daily intervention period. Children learn language at different rates. Most follow a general timeline though. Consistent reward for successfully performing an activity, applies here too. Remember you don’t want your child to be anxious, so keep it light and always encourage her.
What is the value of BSL for later life?
Research shows that BSL has a positive effect on a child. BSL has been shown to enhance speech, by adding useful gestural communication to the spoken language. BSL is the key needed for baby to learn to add the nuances of non-verbal communication to her skills. Effective non-verbal education is an essential way to engage with others and if used effectively, it is a tool that distinguishes effective leaders from others. As your baby grows, she will naturally transition from signs into words, but will continue to use hands, body and facial expressions to highlight and emphasise the message.
Research has shown that BSL can also effectively teach concepts such as the alphabet and counting to children. But most importantly, signing is a lot of fun and allows bonding with your child.