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My guide to using sign-language for babies recommends starting out with one single word, and repeating it frequently until the baby begins using it too.

I'm having a lot of trouble picking a good first word, though. I'd like something relatively easy for a baby to sign, something he'll actually find useful (so he'll want to use it on his own), and something that will be easy for me to explain/demonstrate to him. What is a good first word to use?

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Just to explain my deliberation so far: "Food" is specifically called out as being a relatively difficult sign for a baby; "Mother" and "Father" are difficult to demonstrate if only one of them is present; "more" is a really useful concept, but I'm afraid I'd have difficulty "teaching" it since I can't physically point to "more." I might be overthinking this, but if there's a good recommendation that'd be terrific :D –  Ziv Sep 27 '13 at 13:00
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Most babies I know start with "more" and "stop" or "no". You can't point to more, but you can sign more and then immediately give more food, and they will pick it up. –  Chrys Sep 27 '13 at 15:06
    
@Ziv You're overthinking it. If your thinking were correct, we'd never be able to teach more to any one. So just give her a few cheerios, like 6. When she finishes and starts hollering, that means she wants more. Then you say "More?" out loud and you make the sign for a few secs. She'll stare at you "whats all this then" kinda look. Then you give her 5 more. Ad nauseum. She'll probably get it before she's done eating. It's what they call a "conditioned response"... basically, it's training and it's the main way that you can teach so young a human. –  monsto Oct 3 '13 at 16:55

6 Answers 6

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I disagree with your book's suggestion. Children don't learn spoken language by their parents focusing specifically on one word until that's mastered. Instead, learn a small group of simple signs and use them consistently. Just as with a child's first spoken words, the first sign can be individual.

The practical signs like those people have suggested:

  • milk
  • change
  • eat
  • more
  • no
  • help

are great, but I really suggest adding in a few observational signs which may have no "practical" importance:

  • hat
  • dog
  • cat
  • bird
  • ball
  • car

Once when my daughter was one, before she had any spoken words, we were in the subway station. We had been near the waterfront, and she had been signing about the birds there. In the station, she suddenly started signing "bird" very emphatically. I laughed and said that there weren't any birds underground.

She kept doing it, and I started to think that maybe she was signing "milk" (since she was small, her versions of the signs were kind of similar — they're both open/close motions and hand position is difficult), but she shook her head to that and signed more, and pointed at up at a light in the rafters.

I laughed and said "That's a light, not a bird" — but then I realized that there were actually two small sparrows perched there. So I told her that she was right and that I should not have doubted.

Here, no needs were met or particular purpose served, but yet we had a nice shared moment of communication. I don't think this would have happened (at least not so soon) if we'd just been focused on more or milk.

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Hey, terrific counterpoint! I might go with this - it'd certainly simplify things. –  Ziv Oct 2 '13 at 13:28

The two we started with first have been 'diaper change', and 'milk'. Our thinking was, focus on those words that will let our daughter express her needs as early as possible.

She's only 9 months old though, and just hinting at signing diaper change when she needs one.

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+1 I was going to post exactly this, too. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 29 '13 at 20:36

My son signed "milk" yesterday-- although he hasn't done so in context. His first word was "Mam", which he used exclusively to mean he wanted milk. So under the theory that kids talk about what they care about, milk is on the top of the list.

I take it you are doing baby sign language (20-50 signs to smooth communication until they can talk). That said, in the studies on ASL, there is a concept called "unmarked signs", which is roughly the simplest hand signs you can make. Babies learning ASL will often simplify the signs down to something that is easy enough.

For baby sign language, since he or she doesn't need to integrate into a language community, you can feel free to simplify the signs. (Or you can do full on ASL with facial expressions, careful positioning, grammatical cues, etc-- I think perceptually simple and "hard to make" signs are just as good.)

A friend of our family used baby sign language and the baby simplified "more" to one finger pointing to the other palm instead of the more complex "kissing" of all the fingers pinched together.

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More is easy and handy. But then your young toddler will use it whenever it might be remotely useful, and suddenly you find yourself dealing with a constant torrent of "more, more, more" signed at you. For that reason I think the book that recommends "please" as a good first sign is very useful. That way when your child is demanding something, they are demanding it with a "please." It's more pleasant for you and a good life lesson for your child.

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Our first baby's first sign was "eat"(/"food") and the second was "toilet". For our next kid we're again currently totally focusing on "eat" as the first sign.

Just as for Pete in another answer, our reasoning is to enable our baby to express basic needs as soon as possible. In addition these are (for our sing language and choice of signs) motorically easy signs to do. A further advantage is that, while eating, there is a prolonged time of contact with the baby that lends itself well to signing with a very obvious connection to the current activity, which supposedly increases the baby's potential for learning. The same applies to sitting on a potty (if EC:ing) and signing "toilet" to the baby.

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"More"

Bunch your fingers together, on both hands, and tap em together. It's a gross motor skill which makes it 'best' in my opinion.

My experience with this was . . . surprising. I'm not much on ASL, but my first wife worked with disabled and was 'proficient' so i was a more than a bit familiar.

One day, my 2 yr old walked over to me sitting at the computer, dropped a Smarties wrapper on my mousepad, GRABBED my mouse arm, then put bunched up fingers to palm... tap tap tap. Pretty clear... he wanted more Smarties. What the hell was i gonna do except get the little knucklehead more smarties?

I had no idea where he learned it, hence my, well... SHOCK. Come to find out they'd been teaching ASL at his daycare. It makes sense that 2 yr olds have the mentality to communciate that is more complex than their physical capabilities will allow.

So yeah. . . I vote for "more". (because of more than a little personal attachment)

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We found more and milk were the two that were understood fastest, and were most useful to us prior to the kids being able to speak. –  Rory Alsop Oct 2 '13 at 13:01

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