4 Key Steps In Sign Language Development: For Deaf Babies & Toddlers

4 Key Steps In Sign Language Development: For Deaf Babies & Toddlers

So you've been signing away to your deaf / hard of hearing (DHH) child since finding out about their hearing loss, but still haven't seen a first "real" expressive sign from them?

Don't worry! This feeling is so common among new parents of DHH babies (particularly in the midst of learning a new language with very different grammatical, syntactical and cultural underpinnings!) 

On top of all that, you're not entirely sure what you're actually meant to be looking for when it comes to your child's signed development.

Sure! You have spoken language checklists coming out your ears, but not a whole lot of guidance around their signing skills! So I'm here to help...

There are actually 4 main phases of expressive signed development in babies and toddlers (deaf and hearing!). 

Let me break them down for you...

Number one: Sign Babbling

What is it: It's where children explore with their hands in a very similar way to how hearing children experiment with their mouth when babbling a spoken language. It's the child playing around with the rhythm and movement of their hands as their receptive understanding of the signed language builds.

What does it look like: It essentially looks like the child is playing with their hands, but there's a subtle intention to it. They may clap them, flap them, wave them or place them on parts of their body. They generally gaze at their hands when they do it and it can often occur right after you've signed to them or after being exposed to a lot of sign language at once. Check out an example of how my Deaf son, Frank sign babbled in his first few months of life.

Number Two: Imitation

What is it?: It's where the child begins to copy a sign with their hands, that they have been exposed to, but generally not in context or in connection to a specific situation.

What does it look like:  It will generally be an approximation of a sign you've used with them (i.e. their handshape will be more simplified, such as using a point, fist or flat palm handshape) and generally occurs soon after you've signed something to them. Some common first imitation signs can be FOOD, MUM, MILK (connected to familiar routines and frequently used signs). 

Number Three: Single-sign in context

What is it: It is the first stage of intentional signing - that is, your child produces a single sign (or an approximation of that sign) in context. For example, the child signs DOG while their dog licks their face. This is generally done without prior prompting or previously being shown the sign.

What does it look like: At the beginning, it generally won't look like the actual version of the sign (unless it's a flat palm handshape sign, like MUM or DOG, which is easier to produce). You may even find the location of the sign is different as well (my son Frank used to sign DOG on his chest and then he slowly moved to this version). However, there will be an intentional shift in the way the child uses this sign and you'll notice they'll consistently use the sign in the same context repeatedly.

Number Four: Combination signed utterances in context

What is it: This is the final step before the child's signed development shifts into a more complex and richer form around 3 years of age. This is where they will connect 2 or even 3 signs together with an intentional purpose. Generally, the signs will either be two nouns or a noun-adjective combination. For example, the child may sign MUM-MILK or DOG-BALL or HOT-CUP etc

What does it look like: Similar to the single-sign scenario, however with an additional sign that may or may not be accurate in its production (I.e the handshape, movement, location or orientation may differ from the actual sign).

Now you'll notice I haven't included age ranges for when your child should move through these phases, because it is highly dependent on a range of factors, including consistency of sign language exposure, whether the child has additional disabilities, whether the child has had access to native signers etc 

(And really at the end of the day, we as parents don't need yet another milestone tracker to measure our child against and scrutinise over their every delay or gain. It's exhausting, right?!)

I hope this helps in answering some questions for parents and if you need any extra support when it comes to evaluating your child's language development, I'm only a virtual catch-up away!

For more insights, follow me on Instagram @raisingthebests 

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