American Sign Language is a treasure. Whenever I come across Deaf or signing media in public, it makes my day. Finding ASL books? On top of the moon. But I’m always a little hesitant when it comes to “baby sign language” because… well, most of the time it’s not anywhere near accurate. And if it’s accurate, how helpful is it? How much can families put it into use? Does it really teach you to sign with your baby? Photos and illustrations aren’t always able to clearly convey such a rich, multi-dimensional language. (The age of the DVD has passed, that’s for sure.) And that’s before we even get into the often politicized discussion around which babies are encouraged to sign (and which aren’t). One resource I’ve personally offered is my printable ASL Cheat Sheet— designed more for vocabulary words off hand for older learners. But it’s not a comprehensive guide (nor is it intended to be!) — and so I’m always on the look out for “ASL books” that might serve as a more complete guide for beginners looking to enhance their sign with their child.
I was hopeful when I first learned about “Learn to Sign With Your Baby: 50 Essential ASL Signs to Help Your Child Communicate Their Needs, Wants and Feelings” by Cecilia S. Grugan & illustrated by Brittany Castle— and they absolutely exceeded my expectations. Is this one of the best sign language books out there? 100%. You might even say it’s the perfect book to start learning ASL.
Cecilia S. Grugan (who commonly goes by C3) is a Deaf parent of a hearing child and runs “The Ariel Series” with their partner. Brittany Castle is a Deaf artist (one whose art I’ve personally been collecting for years) from the fantastic 58 Creativity. And then, if that wasn’t enough Deaf gloriousness, the book also includes a QR code video supplement showing you exactly how to sign everything (with multiple angles, too) with Deaf ASL instructor Joey Antonio. An American Sign Language book actually by Deaf people? And multiple Deaf people at that? Massive brownie points.
The next big GREEN FLAG that this book might be a great resource? That it’s explicitly not a “baby sign language book”. Rather, it’s teaching your baby (or your child of any age) to use American Sign Language.
What is American Sign Language (ASL) anyways?
American Sign Language is a natural language that is used by the Deaf community in the United States and parts of Canada. It is a visual-manual language that is expressed through hand movements, facial expressions, and body posture, and it is different from spoken languages. ASL is a complete and complex language that is used for a variety of purposes, including social interactions, education, and employment. ASL has a unique grammar and syntax, and it is not a direct translation of English. It has its own vocabulary and idioms, and it is not simply a system of hand gestures representing spoken words. ASL is a fully expressive language that allows users to convey a wide range of emotions and ideas — all of the same things you could in a spoken language (and many things you could not convey as well). ASL is used by millions of people around the world, and it is recognized as a language in its own right.
Why not just teach “baby sign language”?
“Baby sign language” is a system of hand gestures and signs that babies and young children can use to communicate their needs and wants before they are able to speak. But “Baby sign language” isn’t a language at all. Rather, it borrows signs from American Sign Language along with common cultural gestures to teach babies to communicate emotions, desires, and objects prior to developing spoken language. It is intended to explicitly be used alongside spoken languages like English. Although studies have shown that baby sign language isn’t harmful… there is a lack of evidence that they benefit child development either, at least as taught by most commercially available products (Fitzpatrick et. al, 2014).
What are the benefits of American Sign Language?
But that’s not the case for American Sign Language. By contrast, learning American Sign Language has been shown to have a number of benefits for children’s language, cognitive, and social-emotional development.
One study found that learning ASL improved children’s cognitive skills, including problem-solving, memory, and concentration (Petitto et al., 2000).
In addition to its cognitive benefits, using American Sign Language to communicate with children can also strengthen the bond between parents and children and improve the quality of their interactions. It can also help children develop their social skills and emotional intelligence by allowing them to express their thoughts, feelings, and needs more effectively. Overall, learning ASL can be a enriching and rewarding experience for children and can have a positive impact on their language, cognitive, and social-emotional development. Why would we want to lose so many benefits of learning ASL because it’s “more complicated”? As you learn sign language and become immersed into the sheer amount of media online or in sign language books like these, you’ll see that it’s a challenge… but it’s a manageable challenge. Your vocabulary will improve, your signing will improve, you’ll learn new words and teach your child so much as you grow. This is Deaf Gain— that things originally meant for the Deaf community benefit the whole world. Yes, lots of background information— but I bet it makes you want to learn ASL.
Let’s break down more information about why “Learn to Sign with Your Baby” is the perfect book to learn ASL. It’s more than a dictionary, it’s an easy way (and fun way) to begin learning to sign, practice the basics with your kids and improve your ASL knowledge. While it’s not a class, the book is an excellent introduction and a great tool for beginners who are interested in learning sign language. It’s also essentially an enhanced ASL dictionary – you won’t learn ASL grammar from this book and it’s not going to make you a master at finger spelling the alphabet. But what it does teach you… it does really well.
“Learn to Sign with Your Baby” is easy to navigate and aesthetically pleasing. The concepts and resources are laid out in an easy-to-understand way. There are six categories of signs: starter signs, people and feelings, mealtimes, sleeping and rising, bathing and getting ready, and playing and going out. Each sign is illustrated, described in English, and explains how and when you should use it. They also include helpful “memory hacks”, things to look out for and other tips. (Plus you can use the QR code to watch a video of the signs online!)
At the end of each chapter, the author also included activities to use with your child as a fun way to practice your new ASL skills. This is a wonderful resource that may give you more ideas on what to do in your natural environment as you learn American Sign Language. Another reason why this book is one of the best sign language books for kids is because it is very inclusive – not only will every child be able to find someone in the book who looks like them, they also explicitly address non-binary parents who may not be comfortable with “mom” or “dad”.
Finally, the book includes resources and information regarding children’s language milestones… and what those look like in a signing child who uses ASL (along with gorgeous illustrations). Although this book talks about using sign with babies, I think it’s important to emphasize it can be used with kids of all ages. You can have fun while you learn the basics of sign language vocabulary words. I also think it is a great resource for educators as well as families who want to learn American Sign Language and integrate it into their daily practice.
Have you had a chance to check out “Learn to Sign with Your Baby”? While it’s not a comprehensive guide to learning to sign, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is getting started. It’s the perfect introduction. If you’ve read it, what did you think? What signs would you want to learn or teach next?