Research on baby signing


Read me!Parents only naturally have all sorts of questions about baby signing. How does it work? What are the benefits? Are there any drawbacks? Simply click on any of the headings below to read the content within each. If you have any further questions on baby signing or TinyTalk, why not visit our FAQs page or contact us?



Too much 'screen time'.


The Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, has warned that communication and behavioural skills among 5 year olds are lower than they have ever been (2003).


This is due to parents and carers spending less quality time with their children. The average time that British fathers manage to spend with their children is 10 minutes per day. Television is also being watched by infants for far longer than ever before. One in four British children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years has a television in their bedroom or playroom. One in three children under the age of three play regularly with a computer (The Times, April 2004).



The 'critical period' for language development.

BabySome language researchers also believe that “language development is over by the end of pre-school years” (Chomsky, cited by David Wood (1986)).


Another research study concludes that “the critical period for acquiring a first language is from 21 to 36 months” (Lenneberg, 1967). Loncke et al. (1990) felt that if a first language is not acquired by 5 years of age then learners cannot subsequently ‘catch up’.


Others argue that development continues until children are 12 years old (Wood, 1986). The fact remains: pre-schoolers’ low levels of communication and behaviour need addressing.


TinyTalk Baby Signing Classes help children communicate: here's how.

Communication and behaviour are very closely linked. TinyTalk Baby Signing Classes and Nursery Training Programme can help in both these areas: significantly increasing communication levels and subsequently helping to reduce behavioural problem levels.



Baby signing (or ‘symbolic gesturing’ as it is known academically) is pre-verbal communication (language before speech). Babies understand so much before they can talk! Any good parent or carer can see that their young child is like a sponge, learning all the time. The cogs are whirring, the eyes are sparkling and showing recognition but the muscles required to speak intelligibly (mouth, tongue and vocal cords and the coordination of them) do not develop until 12 to 18 months. However fine motor skills (using the hands in intricate ways) develop from 7 to 9 months. Vocabulary is beginning to be understood (that objects have names and that their names can represent the objects).


Baby sign language can then begin. “Motor development occurs earlier than that of controlling the vocal system which is an advantage for signers” (Sperling et al., 1978). “Babies understand much more than they are able to say. Speaking is difficult. It requires the development of dozens of muscles in the face, mouth, and tongue, and coordination of these muscles with the flow of the breath over the vocal folds in the larynx. From a purely developmental point of view, babies achieve the ability to construct language with their hands at least six to twelve months earlier than they do with their vocal apparatus” (Daniels, 20 1).



Signing provides a way of introducing language to children, enabling them to begin to express their feelings, wishes & needs and to make sense of their world. “Language is a means of understanding ourselves and our society.” (Crystal, 1987). To understand and to be understood is fundamental to our well-being and our sense of self. Through language we have some control of our lives with confidence and self-esteem.


Signs are visual clues to accompany the words and sounds. Many of the core signs from TinyTalk’s Signing Pack, that are taught throughout the classes, are ‘iconic’ (easy to see how they represent the object), such as the sign for ‘car’ holding the steering wheel and turning it from side to side. Others are less obvious but are hundreds of years old and have hidden meanings (such as the sign for ‘toilet’ or ‘potty’ which is the middle finger moving up and down the top corner of the chest (nearest to the arm signing) in short movements. Signs are easy to learn though.


Often children come up with their own signs (such as touching the tip of their nose for ‘biscuit’!) Signs are about a lot more than just moving your hands. Sign language requires facial expression and body language. This all helps to get the message across. At the end of the day- as long as you understand what each other means, that’s all that matters!



Through communication, behaviour can be significantly affected. If you can understand what people are saying to you and can also tell other people what you want or what you are thinking about you will feel happy! Feelings of frustration will be reduced and you are less likely to display ‘anti-social behaviour’ (such as shouting, screaming tantrums and bullying). Instead you are more likely to feel very happy and have a closer bond with the people around you! You are more likely to display ‘social’ behaviour such as showing care and respect for others and their property. (This doesn’t necessarily apply to the toddler rule of thumb that everything they see is theirs!) Feelings of adult frustration and stress levels are also reduced. Instead of thinking ‘Is he tired, hot, cold, hungry, damp, ill or wanting something else?’ and going through the mental check list, you can begin to find out just what your child really wants! By using signs, “your baby can reach out to others, have his horizons expanded and, best of all, forge bonds of affection and satisfaction with you that can last a lifetime” (Acredolo and Goodwyn, 2000).



“Sign language can be used to improve hearing children’s English vocabulary, reading ability, spelling proficiency, self-esteem, and comfort with expressing emotions. Sign also facilitates communication, is an effective tool for establishing interaction between home and school, aids teachers with classroom management, has been shown to promote a more comfortable learning environment and initiates an interest in and enthusiasm for learning on the part of the students. Sign can empower a young child as it eliminates the necessity to scream, cry, and generally carry on, because its communicative ability allows the child to express needs. This aspect cultivates a strong sense of self-worth in youngsters and permits them to enjoy greater confidence” (Daniels, 20 1).


So what can I do to help my child acquire and use language well?


“The biggest single step is a negative one: to get rid of the common notion that language means talking; that talking means using words and that therefore the whole process of language-learning is delayed until a baby is nearly a year old. Language is communication between one person and another. So if you wait to interest yourself in your child’s language until she can speak, you will have missed a great deal of the fun.” (Penelope Leach, cited in Acredolo and Goodwyn (2000)).


What is the key to successful baby signing?

“Persistence, perseverance, keeping relaxed, consistency, starting early and not doing too much too soon.” (Answers given by mums attending TinyTalk [UK] classes and part of a dissertation study by a Social Sciences undergraduate at Bristol University, 2003)


How does baby sign language fit into theories of how language

is best acquired?

Language acquisition has been researched for many years. The ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’ over-simplistic distinction made way for other models such as those looking at how people interact with their children and the environment around the child. Piaget (1926) believed that language is inextricably linked to intellectual development. He felt that “thought is internalized action” (in Webster and Wood, 1989). Mental reorganization and development can occur with or without helpful adults and other people around. (Others have discovered that intelligence levels are often shown at a much higher stage than language (Wood, 1986)). Chomsky believed we are born with a ‘language acquisition device’ (or L.A.D.) and to fully develop our L.A.D. we do need helpful adults and children to support us. He called this help a ‘language acquisition support system’ (or L.A.S.S.). Parents and carers all take on this role of being the L.A.S.S.



This was taken a step further by Vygotsky (1962) who said that this interaction between young children and their parents or carers had to be of quality for it to be meaningful. Those with more advanced language skills needed to support those with less advanced language skills, providing ‘scaffolding’ or support. This includes asking closed questions (offering a choice of 2 things to the child or a question that requires a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer in some form). Children need everyday routines and patterns with appropriate language (Sacks, 1990).


TinyTalk’s award-winning Signing Pack contains 150 signs that relate to the child’s environment (such as ‘toy’, ‘food’ and ‘nappy’) and the first speech sounds pronounced (such as those beginning with ‘b’ and ‘d’, such as ‘bath’, ‘book’ and ‘bed’ and ‘duck’, ‘dog’ and ‘daddy’).


Bernstein (1965) also found a link between a family’s socio-economic background and how restricted or elaborate the language spoken was. TinyTalk teachers work closely with Surestart and Children’s Centres to ensure that all parents are empowered in raising their children and that all children get the very best start in life.


In reality, language (whether spoken or signed) develops through a range of processes.

We learn through imitation, an element of innate ability, cognition and input. This input has to be of quantity as well as of quality. (This goes back to how much time parents and carers really spend talking to their children). “Problem-solving and rule-learning have both also been proved to be of benefit to infants in understanding language” (Galloway, 1998).


From birth, hearing children have language all around them. They are positively “well-buffered” (Snow, 1994) with an “input cushion” (Nelson et al., 1993): they get more than needed to activate their language development. Carers also make adaptations to the way that they talk to young children, termed ‘Motherese’ (Snow, 1977). This facilitates language development. Words are usually simpler and about ‘the here and now’. Phrases are shorter and exaggerated intonation is used. The appropriateness of the social context or language is crucial (Bruner, 1975 and Vihman and Miller, 1988).


Babies start to communicate for many reasons.


The satisfaction of physical needs provides the main incentive: for example to tell you when they are hungry, tired, cold, hot etc. (The signs for all these needs are in the TinyTalk Signing Pack). This is also why they make such rapid progress in doing so. However any good parent or carer knows that a young child derives enormous pleasure “in suiting his actions to other people’s words: “Hands up high! Clap hands! Fetch Teddy!” (James Britton, 1986).



There is also immense pleasure for children in the process of using their hands and making noises with their mouths such as ‘raspberries’! Lastly, “the realisation that ‘everything has a name’” (Britton, 1986). “The discovery that ‘everything has a name’ represents the discovery as to ‘what language is all about’”.



However “eagerness and enthusiasm to talk do not originate in a mere desire for learning or using names; they mark the desire for the detection and conquest of an objective world” (Cassirer, 1944). Using sign language will not hinder a child’s desire to speak. Introducing sign language in fact ‘whets’ their appetite for greater communication. “ASL [or BSL (sic.)] in no way delays or interferes with the normal acquisition of English. Young hearing children who know ASL [or BSL (sic.)]… have an increased facility with English and a larger vocabulary than their counterparts who did not know sign. These significant vocabulary gains remain with them” (Daniels, 20 1).



“Competence in one language appears to facilitate language skill and competence in the other and the use of the two languages seems to heighten awareness of language per se” (Gregory, Smith and Wells, 1997).


Responding appropriately to children’s noises and ‘proto-words’ and encouraging their vocal utterances is important (all detailed in the TinyTalk Signing Pack!)



Keeping language ‘child-centred’ (related to the child’s interests or what they are playing with at the time) will keep it very relevant to their interests which will aid their learning (Denham and Denham, 1991): keeping children “the locus of control” (Wood, 1986). By copying or responding to their utterances also leads to ‘turn-taking’ which is the precursor to natural conversation development.



As said before, first signs require developed fine motor skills and the beginning of vocabulary understanding. This includes the skill of ‘attention switching’ from seeing a sign to seeing the object (and hearing the word) and realising that they are all connected. This creates ‘joint attention’ (Bakeman and Adamson, 1984). It leads to ‘the triangle of referencing’ (Webster and Wood, 1986) which is when they can see the sign or hear the word which relates to their actions and then see the object or the action. “Simultaneously presenting words visually, kinaesthetically, and orally enhances a child’s language development” (Daniels, 20 1).


First signs and first words are always best corrected through indirect improvement.


Rather than saying something is wrong, it should always be highlighted that you are pleased with their attempts. Try to correct them through your response with the correct word and showing the correct handshape. For example, saying, “Yes, that’s right! It is a duck!” (and making sure that they can focus on your mouth patterns and your hand shape). This is called ‘re-casting’ . You can also extend the meaning of the original phrase helping the conversation to flow (Nelson et al., 1993). “That’s right! It is bath time. Let’s put the water in and find your duck!” It must be remembered that pointing, for example, should not be regarded as a first sign. Meaningful signs can be interpreted when the child makes a referential gesture, such as referring to an object with its action and in context (Caselli, 1983).


The average signing baby’s first sign is at 8.5 months (with 10 signs at 13.2 months). The average non-signing baby shows understanding of 10 words at 15.1 months (Bonvillian, Orlansky and Novak, 1983) with the first understandable spoken words considerably later, between 12 to 18 months. The sooner you start with your baby the better as it takes time for both you and your baby to learn what to do and understand it!


Daniels (2001) found very similar results: “The subjects’ acquisition of sign language vocabulary was clearly accelerated when compared with established norms for spoken language development. The children used their first recognizable sign at an average age of 8 1/2 months, had mastered a ten-sign vocabulary at a mean age of 13 months, and began to combine signs at 17 months. The comparable mean ages for spoken language development are 12 months for the first word, 15 months for ten-word vocabulary, and 21 months for combining of words.”


Signing development progresses a little more slowly when babies discover mobility. As they learn to crawl (at about 10 months) their development of signs is of less priority. Often they return to signs with meaningful referential gestures.


As language development progresses, children learn through over-generalising rules in both speech and sign acquisition (Bellugi and Klima, 1972). An example is ‘goed’ instead of ‘went’. This also applies to signs used with the wrong handshape or position. Again, correction should be positive, giving the correct word in your response. As words and signs are learnt they begin to be combined, such as from ‘duck’ to ‘duck, where?’ and ‘Daddy’ to ‘Daddy sit’. These ‘two word utterances’ eventually lead to three and more, then use of adjectives, pronouns, possessives, negatives, contractions… and on and on! Your child has a language with which to understand you and with which to make itself understood.


Signs naturally fall away when children realise that they can orally give you a message whilst still playing with their toys! However children continue to use signs when they are tired or when they want to emphasise their message. Signs are also a lovely way to make a child still feel important when a younger sibling comes along. They also increase the communication and the bond between them. Signs have also proved to be very beneficial to the very many young children diagnosed with ‘glue ear’, a middle ear infection related to colds and throat infections. This results in a temporary mild to moderate hearing loss which can recur. This is often unrecognised for very long periods of time and can lead to many children having communication and behavioural difficulties. However babies that have learnt to sign continue to still understand their parents and carers, still get their message across and display greatly reduced levels of frustration and anti-social behaviour. Yet again- thumbs up for baby sign language!


Interestingly, the very word ‘infant’ means ‘non-speaking’. “There is much to suggest that the acquisition of language marks an absolute and qualitative development in human nature” (Sacks, 1990).


The quality of the child’s input and interaction are crucial factors affecting language acquisition.

TinyTalk knows that baby sign language has a very important part to play in the acquisition of language, both understood and expressed. In so doing, the communication and behavioural skills of pre-schoolers are also significantly raised, helping every child to have the very best start in life.


Student Research Findings on TinyTalk baby signing classes and the

benefits of baby signing.

A Social Sciences Undergraduate student at Bristol University researched TinyTalk UK classes and the benefits of baby signing over 6 months with a number of attending mums for her dissertation (2003). She asked a range of questions, including:

‘Have you observed the benefits you hoped you would get from the classes and using signing with your child (if so, what?)' (asked at the third interview only)

  • Mother 1: “Yes. It is so satisfying to see that something has actually worked”.
  • Mother 2: “Yes. It is so much easier to know what she wants. It has been really helpful”.
  • Mother 3: “Yes. The signing completely transformed our relationship and his behaviour”.

Have you observed the benefits you hoped your child would get from these classes/ using signing with your child? (asked at the third interview only)

  • Mother 1: “Yes. The hot sign is really good as he now knows that the oven is hot and it stops him touching it for example”.
  • Mother 2: “I think for her it is wonderful that she can tell me what she wants or is trying to communicate”.
  • Mother 3: “Yes. He loves the classes. He was a lot happier when he was signing so even though it was a short space of time, it was beneficial”.

Would you say that signing with your child has achieved what you expected? / Did not achieve what you expected? /exceeded your expectations?

  • Mother 1: "Achieved expectations".
  • Mother 2: "Exceeded expectations".
  • Mother 3: "Achieved expectations".

With reference to your relationship and communication levels with your child, what would you say the benefits of signing with hearing babies and toddlers are? (asked at the third interview only)

  • Mother 1: “Communication: to be able to talk to someone who can’t actually verbalise. He doesn’t seem to have got frustrated at learning to talk as he knows we can understand him”.
  • Mother 2: “I think it is fantastic to be able to communicate with your child even though they are too young to be able to talk”.
  • Mother 3: “Improvement in communication”.

Extracts from the notebooks:

  • Mother 1: October 20 3: “More recently I have noticed sign language becoming more and more useful to Child 1 as a way of expressing himself, which is going hand in hand with him trying to talk. He is gabbling away in his own language, but seems to get a great deal of satisfaction out of doing a sign and us realising what he is saying. The feeling is mutual! Sign language seems to be taking away a lot of a child’s frustration”.
  • Mother 2: October 20 3: “Continues to use signs learnt before but occasionally gets them muddled up. Occasionally she is trying to say a word which if I’m not paying attention I would just pass as being part of her babble. Copies things I say and mimicking the sounds of words”.
  • Mother 3: August 20 3: “Child 1 did the ‘food’ sign while I was trying to find him a rice cake from the cupboard!”.

Read more testimonials from parents who sign with their babies HERE >




Click here to see the sign for dogClick here to see the sign for ballClick here to see the sign for teddy bearClick here to see the sign for bookClick here to see the sign for milk (bottle)Click here to see the sign for nappyClick here to see the sign for nappyClick here to see the sign for ice creamClick here to see the sign for plane

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