Did you know that teaching your baby sign language can increase their IQ up to 12 points? Bill White, founder of Happy Baby Signs, and author of Signs of a Happy Baby, will teach us the the best signs to start with, give us strategies for signing success, and highlight the benefits of signing with your baby or toddler!
Full Interview Transcript
Kelly: Did you know that teaching your baby sign language can increase their IQ up to 12 points? Today, we are with Bill White, founder of Happy Baby Signs, and author of Signs of a Happy Baby. He has taught more than 14,000 families in the San Francisco Bay Area how to sign with their baby. He will teach us the the best signs to start with, give us strategies for signing success, and highlight the benefits of signing with your baby or toddler!
Bill thank you so much for being here!
Bill: Thank you so much Kelly this is a wonderful opportunity.
Kelly: Tell us, what exactly is baby sign language? Is it different from American Sign Language?
Bill: Years ago they started signing with babies and there were programs where they made up their signs and they had nothing to do with American Sign Language (which is the language of the Deaf). Nowadays, more and more, people are getting into having their programs be American Sign Language.
Kelly: So, why then why is it called baby sign language? Why don’t they just call it ASL?
Bill: It is called baby sign language because it’s a program geared for babies but all the vocabulary we pull out of the American Sign Language dictionaries.
Kelly: Who came up with this idea of signing to your babies?
Bill: Years ago they noticed that babies (that were hearing babies) that were born to a deaf mom and dad often had different speech acquisition levels. Okay, so their speech acquisition was a little faster than babies that were born to hearing parents. Also babies that are born to deaf parents that are signing, they start to sign at like eight, nine, ten months old – that’s talking. The brain doesn’t care whether you’re speaking English, Russian or sign language just give me something that gets me what I want.
So, here are these babies that are born to a deaf family that are communicating at 10, 11, 12 months old saying, “I want to go outside”, “I’d like some more milk”, “where’s daddy?” And babies that are hearing babies, that are just immersed in a verbal world, have to wait.
The brain can process language at a very early age, like I said, six, seven, eight, nine months old. They’re starting to connect words with the world around them. However, at six, seven, eight months old they’ve got their gross motor skills, but they don’t have their fine motor skills, which is to get the lips and tongue and mouth to be able to say, “I’d like some more water please”. It’s like, “uh, uh, uh, uh”, but if they can sign water with a letter W, now, we’ve got the gross motor skills. Then, you’ve got a baby trying to go to sleep here and mother wonders, why don’t you go to sleep – we tried some water, we tried some sweet potatoes, we tried to breastfeed and the baby is shouting, applesauce! You know I want some applesauce. Right? But if the baby can sign apples (right) instead of the stink face for mommy they get the happy face going, “oh you’d like some applesauce”. There’s no frustration and the baby knows that my mommy and daddy not only hear me, but my mommy and daddy also understand me and value what I have to say. So, when they sign, we understand it and it makes things go so much smoother. So, the gross motor skills come before the fine motor skills.
Kelly: I read also IQ can be increased by learning sign language. Can you talk about that research based on that?
So there were researchers at UC Davis actually, and all around the world, that started researching this, and 40 years of evidence-based research shows that when you sign with a baby, their verbal skills are much further ahead than children that don’t sign their first two years of life
Research shows that at 24 months old, these children that sign, I mean really sign not just do milk and more, they’re about three months ahead verbally than children that don’t sign. Now three months is not a lot of time for you and me, but three months to a 24 month old they’re speaking like a 27-month old that’s way crazy, advanced. On average these kids have about 50 more spoken words than children that don’t sign.
Kelly: Oh wow!
Kelly: Because they have so many more words already.
Bill: Exactly! And again the brain doesn’t care whether it’s Russian, English or signs. But, if you’ve got signs, you can start to use them at 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 months old and that accelerates the verbal sector of the brain.
Kelly: What is the best age to start with your baby with sign language?
Bill: Well people will read that six months is a great time. That’s the golden age where their memory is really solid, they have a sense of permanence – where if you take something away they know it was here just a second ago but where did it go. Six months is also a time where their motor skills are level and where they can do motions that won’t be misread as a random motion. I get three weeks they are like moving their hands I’m like what’s that? I don’t know but at six months old they might be doing this. Which might be the sign for more (okay). However, that said, my experience of doing this for 15 years is start now and people say you don’t know how old my baby is. I go “just start now”.
They’re three weeks old, start now because here’s a couple of reasons. Number one: when the baby’s six months old going okay bring it on my brains ready and you’re going to go oh, I need to sign up for a baby sign language class someplace. The baby’s going, “I have something to tell you now”. If you can get a head start, you can get ahead of their curve. If you only know the sign for milk when they’re six months old because you read it in a book someplace, but if you can get into a course and get early a head start you’ll be that much ahead of the game. Plus, many moms go back to work when they’re four months old. I mean when the baby’s four months old, right and they miss the window completely. Then they say, you know we’re going to do that baby sign language thing and we just never got around to it. But now my son is like fifteen years old and I heard it was a good thing to do. And (yeah) so, we want to grab it. Plus here’s the big thing, the younger the baby is the easier it is for you to pay attention in class, if you get a little four month old or a five month old they’re asleep, they’re nursing, they’re in la la land..
Kelly: So, it’s more about educating the parents then, at that point than and so the baby is just kind of there.
Bill: Exactly. They’re a fashion accessory. They’re asleep, they’re nursing. At many classes they say babies are welcome but they’re not even required to be there.
Kelly: I was just checking.
Bill: Many of the classes nowadays are high-powered, but fun, American Sign Language classes for grown-ups.
Bill: Yeah the biggest mistake I think parents can do is they’ll say you know what we did it for four or five months and it didn’t work so we stopped, it’s not working. When you start at six, seven, eight months old you’ll start to see your first signs at around eight or nine and ten months old. Every baby is different. Some rollover earlier than others, some potty-trained late, some don’t walk until they’re 15 months old
Kelly: It’s all going in.
Bill: It’s all going in. Receptive language comes before expressive language and that’s for sign language and for verbal language too. They understand if you say, oh there’s the kitty, they’ll look at the kitty you didn’t point at the kitty. They know but the kitty is, they understand English, they just can’t speak English where you can understand them. They’ll try ah, ah, ah, ah (right yeah) but you know at six months old they’ve got their consonants, there go ba, ba or ta, ta, (right right) ba okay we’ve got a clue it starts with the letter B, that could mean baby, blanket, bottle brachiosaurus, you know what is it? But if they’re going ba, ba, you go oh blanket. (right) So, combining what they’re trying to say and with the signs, they get you to say the sign the things that they can’t say it and they’re listening they learn language by listening with their ears and their eyes.
Kelly: You said that the biggest mistake that parents make is that they quit too early? Basically, (yeah you have to have faith) and that they keep doing it.
Bill: And the younger they are the more faith you have to have because if you start at four or five months old you won’t see anything for a few months. If you start at eight nine ten eleven months old, you might see the signs come back to you.
Now, here’s a timeline: it starts slowly their first sign is maybe milk or more I hear so many parents and they go all he does is more and he uses it for everything (yeah). That’s normal that’s called over-generalized speech it happens in sign language it happens in English. Their first word in English might be Kitty and they walk around the house going kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty. Daddy walks in and they want to say daddy and they go kitty and you don’t even have a cat they’re just excited they’ve got a word.
So, that and then later on so in sign language for example if they do milk, they do milk when they want milk and they do milk when they want mommy, same difference. Or they want daddy or they want to go outside. They’ve learned that this gets them something (okay) learning language is a process. So, if you just keep speaking Japanese to them they’ll learn Japanese. If you keep signing they’ll go oh this is milk and that is mommy. So, if they just need you to keep talking and the more signing you do the better off they’re going to be. And don’t just sign with the baby sign with each other (yeah). If they see you sign to each other they figure this is how people communicate on planet earth and they’ll just pick it up like that. They don’t think sign language is anything special at all they just like they’re programmed to learn language.
Kelly: What are the top sign to start with?
Bill: Start out with milk and more, all done. All done is like you’re brushing something away all finished and when you sign all done or finished immediately take them out of the highchair. (Right). So, they know what you’re talking about (right) finished is an abstract concept I mean you can point at the flowers and sign flower and show them the flowers. Association is a big part of learning language whether it’s English or sign language or whatever and they’re just picking up they’re listening with their eyes. They are watching you, they’re listening with their ears and they’re watching what’s going on. But all done is kind of a weird concept like if you’re signing change. Change if you say we’re going to change your diaper and come back five minutes later and do it you’re going to miss it. It’s like timing is important when you’re learning language and in stand-up comedy you got to get the timing just right or fall on your face. So, as you’re changing the diaper that’s what you’re doing. So, milk is a good one, change the diaper when you’re changing the diaper, okay and all done. Water is a good one, the letter W for water, juice if they’re on apple juice, apple sauce. Okay, that’s the time you put the knuckle in the apple of your cheek and you twist it.
Kelly: Those are really good basics yeah! So, what about strategies for success? I mean are there any tips you can give to someone who’s learning sign language? There’s a lot of sleep-deprived moms, and a lot of busy moms, where do you find the time to actually be successful at this?
Bill: Start out easy on yourself. Some of the tips you can do are sign with the baby and be patient. Be mindful of the way you sign like the sign for water it’s the W. Okay, if you sign little wimpy signs like what do you want to drink? What do you want to drink? Little quick little things like that your baby will understand you, the deaf community will understand, I’ll understand you.
Kelly: Yeah, even if it’s not the actual sign language. up yeah!
Bill: Yeah, but then when the baby starts you can sign back to you, you won’t understand them if you’ve been doing wimpy little signs. So, one of the key things I can say is speak clearly. I had one dad say my son is doing this what’s that? I go that’s sign for water and he said I thought the sign for water was the W tapping your chin like oh yes! If your son who’s 11 months old has the perfect fine motor skills to do the perfect W and tap his chin twice. He’ll probably do this with these fine motor skills father could you get me a glass of water please! They don’t have fine motor skills so they got to catch up with their fine motor skills okay so, the better you do it the better they can see it and you can touch guide their hands too. That’s a wonderful way to teach them. You hold them in your lap and you take their little hands and say can you sign more. That’s called hand on hand learning if they let you do it go for it. If they pull away, then don’t do it you know you want to make learning sign language a fun activity not a chore (right right)
Kelly: You’ve been doing it for over 15 years. Do you have any anecdotes about kids that have learned sign language, and has a result, maybe they’re reading earlier or talking super early?
Bill: Oh absolutely! Anecdotally. I mean you talk to any preschool teacher nowadays and they can spot the kids that had sign language during their first two years of life. You’ve got a three-and-a-half-year-old and their vocabulary is much, much higher and their level of emotional stability is different because when a baby goes through those first two years of life knowing that my mommy values what I have to say in understands me, I think it changes their self-esteem when they’re 37 years old. Because what happens during those first two years of life has an effect on a person. If every time you had something to say and no one ever listens to Kelly it would come out in therapy, I am not understood doctor, nobody understands me. But, if I say Kelly, I totally understand you and I agree that happened to me the other day. When we connect like that it makes you feel good about yourself. So, you see this and I’ve seen it because I see these kids come back you know now they’re three years old, four years old and the parents are raving about how the child is so verbal and so happy. So the emotional stability is changed those first two years and you can’t redo the first two years of life. (No!) Once it’s over, it’s over it all comes out in therapy thirty years later. You know and I hope it wasn’t full of frustration you know this baby that’s crying for applesauce is frustrated and mommy is frustrated too (right).
Kelly: Yeah, I agree. Any resources or books or websites you can recommend for people get more information on how to sign with your baby?
Kelly: Yeah! YouTube’s got lots of information. Get into a class someplace and there’s classes all over the place now, great instructors, fantastic instructors and when you have a live instructor, they can help you along and see if you’re doing some bad habits like if you’re signing incorrectly or you’re doing some sloppy signs or anything. We can work with you more and more like that but then also there’s great books out there. Baby sign language books and videotapes, the Internet is full of stuff. They’ve got apps fantastic apps that are American Sign Language apps or ones that are more specialized for baby sign language. A lot of the apps are American Sign Language but they also have a little section that you can click on for the basics.
Kelly: Where can people find more information at you? In your classes and books?
Bill: Oh okay! Well, our websites called happybabysigns.com and we wrote a book called, Signs of a Happy Baby and it just came out in stores across the United States
Kelly: Well, thank you so much for being on here. It was a pleasure.
Bill: Thank you very much that’s the sign for thank you
Kelly: Thank you
About Bill White
Bill White is the founder of the Happy Baby Signs and co-author with Kathleen Harper of the internationally best selling book, Signs of a Happy Baby. He facilitates baby sign language programs at Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health, Sutter Health, DayOne Baby, Harmony Birth and Family, Blossom Birth Services, Stanford Work-Life, Cisco Systems, Children’s Creative Learning Centers, Genentech, Bright Horizons Family Solutions, Healthy Horizons, and many other locations. Bill is passionate about the benefits of signing with babies and is the proud father of two hearing sons who both sign. For more information, visit: www.happybabysigns.com.