Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Made-Up Gestures vs ASL Signs

by Sara Bingham

I often get asked about the using made-up gestures versus ASL signs with babies and toddlers. My first reaction is, why not use ASL or American Sign Language vocabulary! It's fun, there are quite a few ASL resources available. As well, and most importantly ASL is an actual language - who knows what your kiddies will want to learn down the road!

If one of our WeeHands classes a few years ago we had one particular baby in our classes whose parents started a class when she was 5 months old. At 18 months she was diagnosed with a severe hearing loss that wasn't picked up with the newborn hearing screen or subsequent regular doctor visits. Thank goodness her family was signing with her anyway for 13 months and was showing her language. They are now continuing to learn ASL in more depth. If they had started with a made-up system there would have been lots of confusion and possibly anger and guilt feelings about making the switch to ASL.

I used ASL vocabulary with my children from the beginning and when my daughter Sabrina went into junior kindergarten when she was 4-years old she had two little ones with special needs in her class who used sign to communicate. It was wonderful to see Sabrina play and communicate with these children just like she played and communicated with her other new friends. She thought nothing of Susie using ASL signs. Because we used ASL, not made up gestures, Sabrina could communicate with these little ones.

We typically don't make up English words for our little ones. We don't start out saying spasghetti, or hometel (for hotel) or candel-lope (for cantaloupe) but our kids do make these words up (and we may continue them sometimes because they are cute). As parents though we haven’t made up the words, our young language learners have.

I like to think of these not as random made-up words but as purposeful approximations. There are linguistic reasons (e.g., semantic and phonological reasons) that our kiddies make up or use these particular approximations. My daughter didn’t call a place where we stay while visiting relatives a mushmellow, she called it a home-tel, instead of a hotel. As English speakers we can completely understand why she made this mistake or made-up this approximation. Our children’s mistakes or approximations are a way of helping them learn the language.

As well, some proponents of using made-up (non-ASL) gestures say that it's easier for babies to make certain gestures for a specific rather than the ASL sign for the same concept. Please note that this claim is made without any scientific research behind it at all. No one with a specialization in occupational therapy/development was consulted. Note that at 7-months babies are typically able to form a pincer grasp that helps them pick up small items such as a pea or a blueberry. This pincer grasp is the same as an F-shape in ASL. You need this shape for a number of signs like FRUIT, CAT, etc. Babies can make these signs! No simplification needed!

ASL signs are typically made up of (1) a body space (2) movement and (3) a handshape (plus facial expression and palm orientation). Babies will typically get (1) and (2) but may have problems with (3) handshape. Knowing this will help parents figure out their approximations.

Resources that encourage these made up gestures often show babies using thier mouths to make thier gesture, e.g., blowing to indicate HOT, making a pucker to indicate FISH, panting to indicate DOG, sticking your tongue out to indicate FROG. This is counterproductive to speech. You cannot verbally say "frog" and use this tongue-out gesture to sign it...try it I dare you! :)

As well some resources show gestures for some concepts that are an ASL sign but a completely inappropriate ASL concept, e.g., teaching a gesture for the concept of "apple" that is actually the ASL sign for MENSTRUATE. Imagine being at the park and offering your toddler a piece of apple with a Deaf family will get some looks!

I taught one family to use ASL signs with their little one and the mom came back to me and said she actually had an opportunity to use ASL without her children. She was getting on the bus one day and a Deaf man was having difficulty asking for his stop. She was able to let him know that if he slowly fingerspelled the name of his street she could help. He did and she was able to read his fingerspelling! Using ASL is a good thing!

Soooo....there's no need to use made up signs, there's no research behind it and on so many levels it doesn't make sense!

Sara Bingham is the author of The Baby Signing Book and the founder of WeeHands, a sign language program with instructors across North America. She is a frequent contributor to parenting magazines and baby-related professional websites.

Since 2001, WeeHands has taught thousands of families and caregivers across North America to sign with their infants and toddlers. Get the latest news on baby sign language at
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