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Early Childhood, Literacy

From Babbling to First Sign

02.25.08 | Permalink | 7 Comments | ASL Think Tank

From babbling to a first sign word with Noam

by Anne Marie Baer

Developmentally, it all begins with the hands first. Both of the infant’s hands constantly move. During this time, the infant is sensing all motions within the forearms where the muscles keep on developing to refine coordination with movements. This process takes several months. Into the third and fourth months, the infant finally learns how to intently move one of hands toward an object to touch and grasp
it. The infant may even try to lift the object, if possible.

In fact, this infant is already moving into a developmental milestone of other language communication aspects, which is more aligned with sight. The infant becomes aware of who is signing in the environment. By this time, this infant is able to keep on looking back and forth during turn taking between signers in the room. This infant is already noticing whether the signers’ hands are moving rather involuntarily or intently during actual communication.

Shortly after, this infant begins to develop certain hand movements in a rather more consistent fashion such as twisting wrists, opening and closing palms, waving in rather declared strokes. This is hand babbling. During this episode, the infant is fastening onto this exciting development as this infant becomes aware of his membership in a human communication group. Soon, when the infant has a sudden feeling of urgency to eat or drink, s/he may whine and cry to get attention. There is no word yet, however, this infant shows communication intent in facial expression, body movement, and hands gesturing in a quite decisive manner to bring about responses from others.Hand babbling comes along in its course of development as the infant keeps on exploring various movements, ones that can be easily conveyed within abilities of gross and fine motors skills.

See Noam babbling endlessly at Deaf Tea Party last September. At that time, he was 8 months old. Barbara DiGiovannia was sitting next to him entertained by Noam’s social interaction.

Often a repeated movement draws exclamation with quick assumptions that this infant may be signing a new word, perhaps a first one? In fact, from 4 to 12 months, there is a series of signs that emerge and fleetingly disappear to a degree where they appear to be translucent forms of signing, namely gesture. Some signs are seen only once, some are seen only a few times. The infant continues to hand babble. This infant is still a baby. Oh my baby, stay little! These short-lived signs are “protoword”, which is a sign utterance that does not make clear sense but is clear only to the caregiver who knows the infant and surroundings well enough to figure out what the infant is trying to communicate.

We were excited as we observed Noam’s first sign that was analogous to “wave-no-no”. We saw this only a few times and then did not get to see it again for a month. We saw “wave-no-no” being used when he was playing with a little night light bulb or unraveling things from the cabinet under the sink in our kitchen. Earlier, he would intimate our sign “waving-no-no”, but this time he began to wave his hand no-no by himself while coyly eying for us to say it also. After seeing this sign frequently, his use of “waving-no-no” was being crystallized as a sign rather than a gesture. Here, transition is being made in which a specific meaning and a form (sign) are connected, and this vocabulary starts saturating in Noam’s mind.

One thing that we can notice about the infant’s hand configuration during babbling phase and its transition to gesture is the priming for actual sign words which will emerge at approximately 9 months to several more months. Usually hand configurations come in five typical handshapes, (5, claw C, S, O, B, 1), that require simple fine motor coordination. Movements range from waving to more brisk movements such as slapping. The infant moves with both arms, which are keeping signing space close to the infant’s body. The infant does not necessarily keep on extending its arms. When the infant develops and begins to pointing at objects, s/he starts extending the arm with clear intent. The infant is becoming mindful with what s/he seeks in communication with someone. Pointing is known as deictic gesture, which has several possible meanings such as “I want this object”, “I want you to get me out of seat”, “I want to go in the room with my brother”.

Finally there is something the child surmises by signing and communicating something as clearly as possible. For example, as Noam puts his fingers over his mouth, his face slightly grimaces while looking at his mother in a distance. He is hungry. Several times, his father also notices Noam’s intent to communicate that he is hungry and wants to eat. For the past month, he has been using this sign more regularly hence proclamation his actual first sign word.



A photo of 13 months old Noam’s first sign ‘eat’



Pettito, L.A., Holowka, S., Sergio, L.E. Levy, B., & Ostry, D.J. (2004) Baby hands that move to the rhythm of language: Hearing babies acquiring sign languages babble silently on the hands. Cognition, 93, 43-73.

Pettito, L.A. (1994). The transition from gesture to symbol in American Sign Language. In V. Volterra & C. Erting (Eds.), From gesture to language in hearing and deaf children (pp. 153-161). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Meier, R. P. (2006). The Form of Early Signs: Explaining Signing Children’s Articulatory Development. In Schick, B., Marschark, M., & Spencer, P.E. (Eds.), Advances in the Sign Language Development of Deaf Children. (pp. 202 - 23o). Oxford University Press, USA.

Volterra, V., Caselli, M. C., Capirci, O., Pizzuto, E. (2005). Gesture and the emergence and development of language. In M. Tomasello & D. Slobin (Eds.), Beyond nature-nuture! Essays in honor of Elizabeth Bates. Mahwah, NJ.: Erlbaum.

Watch and see what Noam’s 7 year old brother Yoel says about Noam’s struggle with coordinating his own hands. Noam was two weeks old at that time.


Fact Sheet

02.18.08 | Permalink | 11 Comments | ASL Think Tank

Signed by Anne Marie Baer


Download the Questions and Answers fact sheet here.


Early Childhood, Literacy

Changing Your Mindset for a Deaf Baby

02.11.08 | Permalink | 14 Comments | Diane Plassey Gutierrez

Signed by Anne Marie Baer

Get visual

In adapting one’s expectations to the new reality of your baby’s deafness, it is necessary to literally get down on one’s knees and see the world from a baby’s level. This is a visual infant; so pay attention to what is visible and rich in meaning in the environment. All sounds will be meaningless, fuzzy or absent. Even if you choose to include hearing aids or cochlear implants, remember that what the infant sees is most important to learning.

Feed the child’s strongest sense

Enrich the environment with things that are bright, lend themselves to manipulation, and to interaction with you. Post labels with large words on everything: lamp, table, TV, window, doll, train. Use your appreciation for his visual awareness, your newly learned signs, and your own face to communicate by animatedly saying his name, your name and the activity you are sharing.

Understanding brings meaning

The visual infant immediately takes his awareness to a higher level from such attention. Teach him to love books by acting out the stories as you look at the pages together. Put him on the counter to watch you prepare food and tell him the names of foods as you both sample them. (For fidgety toddlers, take your food preparation to the little table instead of the counter.) When you put an older child to bed, be sure he can see the words labeling things in the room. Think about the noises some toys make and encourage him to feel them and name the sound. Note: electronic sounds make very little vibration. Choose toys with visible sound-making mechanisms and obvious vibration.

World of visual language

As the child grows, be aware of the language in the environment and teach him to attend to them. The word STOP on signs, the captions on TV, the print on milk cartons and cereal boxes, the words on magazine covers, even the words on his toys.

Expand on his experience

Watch how the child figures out things from seeing his environment and enhance his understanding. “The TV changed because Daddy pressed the remote.” “The dog is barking because someone is outside.”

It comes back

The visual child will also find ways to express visually. Encourage any artistic, mechanical, literary, even any musical interests he may show. Music can be visual and tactile. All forms of expression are received and appreciated, and returned in kind–a splash in the finger paint is answered by mom’s handprint. A twang of the strings on a toy violin is answered by a rhythmic one-two pluck of two widely different frequencies.

Watching and understanding

The visual child will be encouraged to watch what he can’t touch. Bring him to the zoo, to the neighborhood childrens’ theater, to the park to watch people, and tell him what is happening. This also leads to the “what?” stage of response and, inevitably, that “why?” stage that drives most parents crazy. This, too, will pass as language reaches full competency.

Don’t confuse hearing with intelligence or language

One last thing to remember is: talking does not equal language; it is only one of many ways to express language. Look for visual language; it comes in every gesture, every expression, and every attempt to convey meaning through the variety of media that is offered to the child. He may become a writer, or a mechanic that understands how machines work; he may learn to speak or become a storyteller in American Sign Language. He may express far more in colors and paints as an artist than in exchanging hellos. And you, too, will learn a whole new understanding of the meaning of expression through other than hearing.

Diane Plassey Gutierrez