British sign language to support language development

As a new mum, you will be inundated with offers of groups, courses and activities for you and your baby. Sometimes, it can be a bit overwhelming! However, with time, you will be able to see which ones are more appropriate for you, independently of the fact that your baby is bilingual.

Baby signing

One of the activities that people kept mentioning was sign language for babies. There are many different courses offered for parents and babies, some are based on British Sign Language (BSL) and others are based on Makaton, which is basically a version of BSL adapted to children with learning or other difficulties. The advantage of using BSL to support language, they say, is that it helps babies communicate their needs to parents even before they can talk.

It does make sense if you think about it, babies learn to point and gesticulate to get our attention and tell us what they want or need. However, these signs are their own, and one has to really struggle sometimes to guess what they are trying to say. Using an already existing sign language system means that you and he know what a sign is for. There is also the language developing factor, if you just sign and don’t say the word, the baby will learn the sign but not the word. Lizzie Betts in her Signing Hands; Baby Signing Basics manual advises parents to say the word out loud while doing the sign so babies learn both. She also advises to use signs in context, for instance doing the sign for milk while offering a bottle or a glass of milk.

Many parents I have spoken with swear by the method. A lady from Colombia confided in me that one of her main fears before becoming pregnant was that she would not be able to communicate with her baby until he or she started to talk, and as that takes a few years, she anticipated frustration. So, she decided to take a course on baby sign language and it worked for her. Before her little bilingual daughter was able to speak, she could already communicate her most basic needs to her mummy without having to resort to crying, just using signs.

This and many other comments from mums using this method made me think that it would also be a good tool for bilingual babies. Teaching them the sign for milk while you offer it saying “leche” in Spanish, “milk” in English or “lait” in French may just give them that extra push in identifying that the different words in the different languages are actually the same thing, making the link in their brain.

I have recently started a course on baby signing, I have just learned a few signs, “milk” and “eating” among them. I was pleasantly surprised to see my 14 month old copying the sign for “eating” very easily. We are not yet at the stage where she does it independently, but it’s only been two days!

The course I’m on is advertised as suitable for babies up to a year and a half more or less. However, I have been teaching my 3 year old a couple of signs and she loves it. She is at that stage where she wants to copy everything mummy does, so why not take advantage? It’s a great way to develop language, communication skills as well as eye – hand coordination.

Is there anybody out there using sign language to develop language? I’d love to hear from you.



  1. Hi there,
    This article is quite interesting, I must say. We are a bilingual family, and I have looked into sign language, but so far I am not very convinced. In my point of view, the fact of my boy being bilingual will definitely help him indentify the concept of “different words in different languages are the same thing”. The only advantage I can imagine is that if a kid wants to work as an interpreter for sign language, it will be easier for him or her.

  2. Sorry for using the comments section to get in touch but I couldn’t find another way to contact you. I notice that in your bilingual bookshop section you include some of our books such as Colin Baker’s A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. We publish many other books that might be of interest to you and your readers and would be happy to send you some for you to include on your site if you think this is appropriate. Just let me know if you would be interested in this.
    Thanks very much.

    • Hi Elinor,
      Yes, we would be interested. Sorry for the long coming reply, but we have been caught up in moving houses!

  3. John Peter McCance says:


    Any updates on how things are going? :)

    • Hi John,
      Thanks for the interest. I am just about to publish a new post. I have replied to your comment regarding Tagalog and English. Hopefully, it will help.

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