Image from "Sign Language for Hearing Babies".
a 24 month old signing “book.” This is one of several pictures of a child signing in the e-book “Sign Language for Hearing Babies”.

Many people today teach their child “baby sign language”. But what does the term really mean?  Most hearing people don’t really understand what Sign Language is, so what do we mean by baby sign language?  A definition has been given with “American Baby Sign Language (ABSL)”.

With the term baby sign language already in widespread use, American Baby Sign Language was chosen for the following goals, methods, and limitations. Also, since different peoples use different sign languages, just like they use different spoken languages, so BSL already means “British Sign Language”.  The term “American Baby Sign Language (ABSL)” has been introduced in the e-book, “Sign Language for Hearing Babies.”

ABSL gives guidance on how it can be taught (using age appropriate teaching techniques), reasonable goals and expectations, and reasonable limitations based on the target audience (hearing parents with limited Sign Language skills or knowledge who ultimately want their child to become fluent in their spoken language).

The brief definition is:

“American Baby Sign Language (ABSL) is hand and arm motions, based on American Sign Language (ASL) or Pidgin Sign Language (PSE), done to the best of the signer’s ability, used to give young children the ability to communicate until the child becomes fluent in the family’s spoken language.” In practical terms ABSL:

– allows preverbal babies and young children to use their arms and hands for expressive communication;

– is based on ASL and Pidgin signs used by the majority of American signers, but babies and young children are allowed to use movements based on their developmental level at any given time, then use or grow into ASL or Pidgin signs;

– communication will usually be very simple and need little or no grammar, but if needed, the family’s spoken language grammar can be used;

– uses the child’s developmental level to determine the way teaching is done.

Using that definition, ABSL includes most of what many hearing people are already teaching their baby regarding signing, but it may help them better understand their goals and methods.

The more complete definition is:

American Baby Sign Language (ABSL) provides preverbal babies and young children with a simple but useful expressive and receptive language, and supplements the spoken language of verbal children until they are fluent in their family’s spoken language(s).

ABSL includes deliberate arm and hand movements (barring other issues) done to communicate; it does not include reaching for things to take control of the situation.

ABSL uses ASL and Pidgin signs that can be easily learned through a variety of common sources. Parents, guardians, babysitters, teachers, therapists, etc., will, to the best of their ability, use and teach proper ASL or Pidgin signs. Babies and young children will be given allowances for their developmental level at any given time; the child will be allowed to sign according to their developmental level and grow into ASL or Pidgin signs unless they are unable to because of a disability.

With ABSL, signs are taught according to the developmental ability of the child. Specifically, spoken words are not used to try to teach signs to preverbal babies, but may be used in addition to a developmentally appropriate teaching technique to help them eventually learn spoken language as well as signs.

Since ABSL will usually be taught by people who do not have strong signing skills, and communication will usually be very simple and need little grammar, practitioners may use the family’s language grammar so as to not confuse the child whose primary goal is to learn the parents’ grammar. This will promote the use of signing in the target audience for as long as possible so that children and their families get the maximum benefit.

ABSL is not a replacement for spoken language, and it is not intended be a baby’s primary language for the long term. ABSL is not Sign Language mastery (practitioners could not be ‘fluent’ in ABSL), but can be a stepping stone to proper Sign Language by increasing vocabulary and learning ASL or Pidgin grammar.

ABSL is based on ASL and Pidgin signs so that practitioners:

     can, on a simple level, communicate with other people who use ASL and Pidgin signs;

     use signs that are consistent with the majority of competent signers in America;

     can readily understand signs they might encounter in a school setting.

Signs created by an individual at home or a company marketing proprietary signs would not fall under the ABSL designation but would still be considered baby sign language.

“Sign Language for Hearing Babies” is available from

American Baby Sign Language
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