Encouraging Language Development with Simple Signs

Learning begins at birth and includes all interactions between a baby and the world around them. A mother’s calming voice, a sister’s squealing laughter, and a grandfather’s noisy yawn all provide cues to young children that become the foundation of communication.

Communication in young children takes on many forms. Infants communicate by displaying emotion, such as crying. Toddlers utter simple sounds and often point. Gestures and sounds lead to first words. Learning to talk using a shared language opens a whole new world for children.

Parents may often notice that their infant will become frustrated when we, the adults, cannot understand what they are trying to tell us. For example, we can recognize the “I don’t like this” face when we feed them during mealtime. We may also learn their mannerisms when they feel full. Young toddlers will point to objects – and sometimes adults have trouble figuring out what they want. Simple signs can help parents and young children communicate these feelings or desires and decrease frustrations for all involved.

A common question is whether using signs with very young children who have no identified speech delay will, in turn, delay talking. This is not the case. In fact, research shows that using signs with young children increases a child’s verbal skills. Research has shown that using sign language does not negatively impact a child’s language development and does the opposite up to about age four.  

When words are spoken along with using signs, young children learn both. Young children can often use simple signs & gestures to communicate before they have mastered the skills needed for sounds and words.

When can you use signs with young children? Try starting with these:

  • While eating – more, milk, eat, drink, all done, please, thank you
  • While dressing – shirt, up, shoes, hat
  • Playing outside – dog, cat, bird, sun, play
  • All day – no, yes, all gone, stop, again, go, help
  • Around family members – grandma, dad, sister

There are many books and videos that teach simple signs for children. Your local library, the EI
Clearinghouse, or even YouTube, all have videos to help you get started with signs for common words used throughout a young child’s day. We have linked a few options in the book list in this newsletter and in our linked resource guide.

It’s important to start with simple signs and use them consistently with your young child. It may take some time for them to begin using simple signs. Give it time and make it fun. The smile on your child’s face when you finally understand what they’ve been trying to tell you is worth it!

Publication date: 2024