Hesperian Health Guides

Learning to sign

In this chapter:

When your child sees people around her using sign language to communicate she will begin to use signs herself. Remember that some signs are easier to use than others.

A hand demonstrating how to sign.
A hand demonstrating how to sign.
This shape
is easier.
This shape is
more difficult.

When a child learns to sign, she first learns where to put her hands. Then she learns to move her hands in the right way and, finally, to shape her hand and fingers correctly.

Your child is not going to make every sign exactly right. At first, you may not even be able to understand the sign. But praise her for trying, and do not be too anxious about her signing clearly.

Ways to encourage your child to begin using signs

  1. Watch for the messages she is already sending through gestures, sounds, and expressions on the face.

    A girl looks up at her older brother as she points to a pitcher.
  2. Give her the sign for the message she is sending.
  3. A boy signing to his little sister.

  4. Emphasize the sign, and repeat it several times. Encourage her to imitate you.
    A boy and his little sister signing to each other.
    That's right,
    Fatima, drink!

    If she tries to imitate you, praise her. If she does not make the sign in the right way, do not correct her. Instead, simply repeat the correct sign.

  5. When your child has learned a sign, encourage her to use it often.
    Find ways to include it in your everyday activities.

A woman signing to her daughter, who holds a cup near her doll’s mouth.

Ask questions that can be answered with a single sign.

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A man signing to his little girl.
Do you want your doll or blanket?
A small girl signing to her father.

If your child answers, praise her. If your child does not answer:

  • she may not understand the sign.
  • she may not understand the idea of a question — that it needs an answer.

One way to teach your child about questions is to answer them for her at first. After a while she will get the idea.

A woman and a small girl in a garden signing to each other.
How many squash do we need?
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We need
2 squash.

How to encourage your child to communicate simple needs

A woman signing to her daughter beside a basket of fruit.
What do you want, Rani? Tell me in sign language.

When your child wants something, she is more eager to learn a sign that will help her get what she wants. Here are some ideas for encouraging your child to use sign language to communicate simple needs:

  • Whenever your child seems to want something, encourage her to sign for what she wants.
  • Create situations that need your child to ask for something.
A boy signing to his father, who is holding a ball.
Oscar’s father stopped their game until Oscar asked him to continue.

When your child uses a gesture that can mean different things, act confused. Encourage her to send a more specific message by giving you the sign.

A girl signing to her little sister, who points to a cup.
Do you want your cup or ball?
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Can you sign ‘cup’?

How to help your child make and follow simple requests

As your child learns to recognize the names of objects, people, and activities, she can begin to understand simple requests you make. Begin with short requests. Emphasize the signs she already knows and use gestures to make the message more clear. Be sure to give your child enough time to respond and repeat the request if necessary.

At first, make requests about objects or people she can see around her.

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A woman signing to her little girl in a garden.
Ai, bring me your shirt.

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Ai, bring me some water, please.

Then make requests about objects or people she cannot see, using signs you have taught her.

3 children rolling a tire toward a girl.
Yes, come play with us, Jama.

Your child will soon learn to make requests herself. Everyone should encourage her when she tries to make requests.

Ways to encourage your child to learn more signs

The best way to help your child learn more signs is to communicate with her as much as you can — and to encourage her to send messages back to you. Here are a few ideas for communicating throughout the day.

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  • Everyday activities are a good time to learn new signs. This gives a child a chance to use the same signs over and over.
2 sisters sign to each other as they get dressed.
What goes on next,
Mei Mei? Your pants?
Always make sure your child is looking at you when you sign with her.
A woman, her husband, and 2 children sitting on the floor as they prepare for a meal.
Who’s this for?
Is it for Raj?
  • Make a mistake to encourage your child to correct you. Here, this child’s mother called her by her brother’s name.

Try making up games that include some new signs. For example, these children are playing a game to find hidden objects they can name by sign. At the same time they are learning some new signs.

A girl signs to a group of girls and boys.
See if you can find the cup, bottle, spoon, and can.
The children searching for the objects.