I'm a big fan of Scott Hanselman. Aside from his many useful technical posts, I enjoy reading his posts about his son, Zenzo. That's due at least in part to the fact that Zenzo is right around a year younger than my daughter Ellen, so hearing about Zenzo learning to crawl, walk, or whatever brings me back to when Ellen was passing the same milestones.
It was with particular interest, however, that I read Scott's latest Zenzo post, entitled "Baby Sign Language". I was going to leave a comment on his blog, but frankly I just don't like comments. It's a subject for another post, but essentially I find that I just never go back to the site after I leave a comment - I've tried stuff like CoComment, but nothing has really been natural and easy. So I figured I'd just post here instead - the trackback is generated automatically, which is better than nothing.
But to the subject at hand: Baby Sign Language. We did this with Ellen. I'm a HUGE fan of it. But I knew I would be - I have a brother who is thirteen years younger than me, so I can clearly remember him as a baby. He has Down Syndrome, so he was unable to speak at all until he was nearly three. It was just too difficult a skill. My parents got the brilliant idea of teaching him ASL, and we were all signing simple signs with him for probably a year before he could communicate verbally. It was great - really helped him express himself.
Given my experience, I was pretty determined to teach Ellen sign language as well. Alice (my wife) was totally open to the idea (indeed, she probably would have done it regardless of whether I'd be interested) so we started with Ellen when she was something like six months old. For us, the primary sign was for "milk", which we'd show her every time she got fed.
Just like Scott, it was initially like signing to a wall. She didn't seem to care, and she certainly didn't sign back. But I knew from my brother that it was just a matter of time, and sure enough, at about eight months, Ellen was able to mime the sign back to us. It's pretty amazing to get any communication whatsoever (other than smiling and crying) from an eight-month-old.
Of course, she stopped signing shortly thereafter for a good six weeks, but once she started again, there was no stopping her. She probably knew about ten signs ("milk", "eat", "more", etc.) before she could speak her first word ("ball"), and she probably knew over two dozen when her verbal vocabulary passed her signing one. It was our primary way of communicating with her for months and months, and was a great help to both her and to us in knowing what she wanted.
Right around the time Ellen was really catching on to the signs, we had a friend staying with us for an extended time. He'd been hit by a car, so he had a lot of time to sit around and watch Ellen learn. His comment? "I'm totally doing this with my kids when I have them." Which was my exact sentiment from watching my brother.
It's funny for me to hear resistance to the idea. The one that really puzzles me is the "it'll slow down their speech" one. Not only is this contrary to clinical evidence (IIRC - we did the research but I no longer have the citation), but my personal experience has been the opposite. Ellen, like Zenzo, is bilingual in verbal languages (Chinese and English), and despite that seems to have verbal capabilities comparable to her contemporaries. Bilingual children generally take a bit longer to reach the same level of speech in a single language than children only learning one language (again, I don't have a citation any more).
But setting that aside, I always point out to people that all children use sign language. Every kid reaches their hands up when they want to be picked up, and every kid waves to indicate "goodbye". There are probably other examples - gestures are so baked into communication that it's hard to even think of them. Teaching ASL is just an extension of this.
I can't recommend teaching ASL to your baby strongly enough. It's totally worth it. And don't worry if you don't know ASL - just make up some sign and use it consistently. We used to do that all the time for new stuff we didn't know the sign for. Of course, it's not hard to find signs on the Internet, but when you're in the heat of the moment, anything will do as long as you pick something, tell your spouse, and stick with it.
I'll close here by answering one more of the questions Scott posed: Does Ellen still sign? Yes she does, but not to communicate. She communicates exclusively (and nearly endlessly :) ) verbally, but there are about five signs she still makes even when speaking. For example, she still signs "sorry" even as she says it - in English or in Chinese.