She said a handful

Just gimme some kind of sign, girl
Oh, my baby

–Brenton Wood

When Mara was a baby, we bought a book about teaching babies sign language and Mara took right to it. Each time we recognized that the motion of her hands was intentional — intentional in a verbal way — and that we were seeing her use a new sign for the first time, we were flattened with glee. And Mara was thrilled, too. Babies can sign a lot sooner than they can form words with their tongues, and contrary to what the amount of drool on their chins might suggest they have a lot to say at a very early age.

For the most part we anticipated Mara’s needs and she didn’t have to tell us when she was hungry or sleepy or had a load in, but as Mara began to be able to identify desires and preferences she had, we found that her ability to communicate those desires and preferences to us reduced stress all around. Imagine knowing exactly what you desperately want and trying to say it and having people just stare at you. The tool of hand-speech gives children an early sense of self-agency and helps build their self-esteem — yeah, I said it — and feelings of security. Plus, when a baby can give the sign for “all done” less food goes on the floor.

While Mom and big sis practice in the background, Millie makes her sign for dog (note the right hand at her belly).

It’s also plain fun. I remember times when we’d be driving somewhere with Mara in the back seat and her hand would start thumping against her thigh — the sign for “dog” — and we would wonder if she was just wigging out or meant something else entirely. But if we looked carefully enough, scanned the sidewalks near and far, up an alley perhaps, we would always see the object of her conversation. She was always right. And somehow, she knew they were dogs no matter their shape or size or pilatory endowment. We would sometimes marvel, “How does she know that fuzzy little thing isn’t a cat?”

I have heard some people express concern that children who learn to sign will have trouble later with vocal speech, one even citing some case where a child grew up silent because it was easier to use the sign language than to use speech. Folks, I’m here to tell you that we had no problems with vocal reticence. Mara talks as much and as enthusiastically as any other six-year-old, and because of the nature and sheer number of the books we’ve read to her and stories we have told her over the years, she has a vocabulary that is well above that of many of her peers.

Of course Mara modified the signs, simplifying most of them. And many times she would blend signs so that the only difference between two words might be the size of the gesture or some other aspect like the sharpness of its execution rather than its particular shape. The sign for “water” is three fingers held up like a W and one of them touching the lip, but Mara’s sign for water looked a lot like the sign for “food” or “eat”, which makes sense. That word also touches the lips, but as if you were eating bread. We learned her dialect, her particular “spellings” — a beautifully apt usage here — and looked forward to each new word she used, until eventually her desire to say the words with her mouth — a practice she found more reliable since we might not always be looking at her but we were always able to hear her — increased and her signing gradually fell into disuse.

Millie has just begun to sign and we are thrilled again. One of the first signs she learned was “hot”, which looks like turning a hot piece of potato away from your lips. She likes that sign, and it’s one of the words she uses with its vocal counterpart. I think that besides “mama” and “dada” and “yaya” (Mara), “hot” may have been Millie’s first vocal word. (For a while, there was a noise she made like “kok-kok” to signify a book, because of the rooster saying “cock-a-doodle-doo” in one of her bedtime books, and she also used a similar sound when the cats brushed by her on the floor. We determined that it was her early vocalization for any animal she saw. For some reason we categorize those utterances differently.)

The Morrisers go at each other with sticks.

But she is increasingly using signs. A week or so ago Emilia and I accompanied her big sister and her mother to Gasworks Park, where Mara and Angela were practicing with a local Morris Dance group. There were a lot of people walking dogs, and every time Millie saw one, she started thumping her hand against her belly, which is her particular spelling for dog. For a while she expressed cats as dogs, too, even though “cat” is spelled with two hands as though you are defining whiskers on both sides of your face, but lately she has started using a one-handed modification that looks a lot like blowing a kiss.

Sure, why not? We love the cats.


4 Responses to “She said a handful”

  1. 1 Jana July 8, 2011 at 09:18

    Very fun! Does Mara remember the signs (is it like riding a bike?). My baby sister has a three-an-a-half year old that they taught signing to as a baby and I can vouch that it certainly did NOT impede her vocal speech acquisition! She’s uber verbal! They now have a four month old that imagine they will also teach baby signs.

    • 2 Matt July 8, 2011 at 12:23

      Hi Jana,
      There you go. More evidence that it’s actually beneficial to later speech. My suspicion is that since signing is a language and engages similar brain areas, it actually aids the vocal language facility rather than hinders it. Mara did not remember the signs, no, but she’s still such a sponge-brain at her age that it has taken no time for her to relearn them.

  2. 3 roccosmusicamusica July 10, 2011 at 04:57

    A most interesting read, Matt. I had no idea babies could communicate through sign language. The book you acquired – is the vocabulary in it vast?

    • 4 Matt July 11, 2011 at 08:48

      Thanks Louis,
      Not vast, no. It has about 130 words/phrases, but we really only used a score or so. You can also look up hundreds (thousands?) of American Sign Language (ASL) words using the online sign dictionary at

      We didn’t even really read the book (I didn’t anyway). The illustrated glossary, which is what we were most interested in, is an addendum to the chapters about how to play signing games, ideas for signing opportunities, etc. I can’t find the book on Amazon and don’t remember the name of it, but if you’re interested I’ll find it later and tell you.

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