Monday, February 20, 2012

When Signs are Gone but not Forgotten

Do signs stick around once a baby is able to say the words they represent? The answer is “Yup!”—at least for awhile. Think about your own use of signs. Have you completely stopped waving GOOD-BYE just because you have the word? No. You automatically recognize occasions when the sign words better than (or better with) the word. Here are some of the times when babies make the same decision:

To clarify a message. Learning how to say words clearly enough for adults to understand is a real challenge. Baby may know that “tu tu” means “turtle,” but that doesn’t guarantee that Mom does. To deal with this situation, babies often add a sign when they see a confused look on someone’s face. “Ohhhh. You mean TURTLE!”

When mouths are full. A mouth full of food is a real obstacle to intelligible speech, and a baby who really wants “more” goldfish crackers is disinclined to wait to swallow the ones he is already working on! For quite a while after they learn words, therefore, children will naturally revert to signs to speed up service.

For emphasis. Have you ever said “No!” while simultaneously shaking your head back and forth vigorously? Of course you have! Truth is that there are time when words alone simply aren’t strong enough, and babies feel this way too. (This is another case where the sign for “more” provides a good example!)

When words can’t (or shouldn’t) be heard. Sometimes the noise level in a room is just too high to make words effective. For awhile, babies will naturally revert to signs in such situations. On the other hand, sometimes they will spontaneously revert to signs in the opposite situation--when talking is inappropriate—like in church or the library. Smart little Dickens, aren’t they!?

So, just because your baby is starting to say a word, don’t expect the sign to disappear overnight. In fact, keep your eyes open for episodes like this one a colleague of mine reported: About a year after her daughter had stopped using signs in favor of words, her mom saw her tapping her doll’s finger tips together and saying “More, you want more.” Wow!

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, the Baby Signs® Program
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
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