What is it? Natural gesture and baby sign language (or key word signing) are terms you may have heard but might not know much about. To simplify it, these terms refer to using gestures or simple signs to support the key message in what you are saying.
Gestures SUPPORT language development – this statement may seem counterintuitive as people often think that they replace speech. However, it’s important to note that signing is NOT to replace talking and is not just used with children who have hearing impairments. Supporting communication with signs and gestures is beneficial for ALL children! Signing can help babies and toddlers to develop skills in making and sustaining eye contact, increasing attentional capacity, understanding what you are saying, expanding what they can say as well as encouraging copying skills (which is key to learning!).
How do I find the right signs to use? Choose a couple of signs that can be used in many different situations (e.g., “more”, “finished”, “like”, and “want”). It’s best to start off by learning words which communicate common needs and wants (e.g., that your child would like more to drink). You can either make up your own consistent signs to use or find the correct signs for the word by checking out the Auslan signbank (www.auslan.org.au) which provides demonstrations of any sign you would like to learn.
What do I do? When you are talking with your child, use the gesture at the same time as you say the word. For children who are just learning to talk, simplify what you are saying to be 1-2 words and use 1 gesture to accompany it. For example, if you are working on the word “more”, say the word and do the sign and then immediately give them another drink/bite of food/turn with their game. For older children, you can use a simple sentence but still only need to sign for the most important word. Remember, always say the word as you sign it.
When can I start? Even though our babies can’t reply to us, we start talking to them from the moment they are born because this builds up their understanding of words and phrases. The same applies to using gesture and signs! Babies are generally able to begin imitating signs by 6 months but will need lots of exposure and practice before they use the sign consistently and in the correct context.