Part 3: Let’s get talking! Moving from baby signs to vocalizations (11 months+)

You’ve made it through the first two phases – modeling signs in blog #1 of this series and then more actively prompting your baby to make signs in part #2 of this series. This final blog is about how to transition from sign language to vocal communication, a desire for all parents! Of course, we all want our kids to be able to communicate in the most efficient way possible, and vocal communication is just that: efficient.

Parents often ask me “at what age should I expect first words?” At the risk of sounding like every other parenting blogger who comments on this topic – please know that all babies are different – some will vocalize early, others will vocalize later. There really is a WIDE range and there’s no way to predict when your child will say their first words. Always talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s pace of development or you are seeing other behaviors you are concerned about. Generally, differing rate of language development, within a reasonable time frame is okay!

All that said, a general rule is that around 1 year of age is a reasonable time to expect a first word. Remember, that if you have been using sign language in some capacity, you’re setting your child up to be very successful! And, you’ve already given them a great way to communicate, which is key to reducing frustration and setting a strong foundation for language development.

For some toddlers, the transition from sign language to vocalizations will occur almost effortlessly and specific strategies won’t be needed. Put simply, your child will start to make some vocalizations, that sound like the sign (and object). Examples include: “ah” for “mama” “bah” for bottle. As I mentioned in part 2, it’s easy to get overly excited about this and say “my kid is talking, she doesn’t need signs anymore” – but be careful here! The signs provide an easy way for your child to communicate, and the signs are something you can easily help them do using prompts.  My general rule is that before you get rid of the sign completely (aka stop reinforcing and prompting it), you should 1) be able to understand the word the child is saying when it is said independently and without the sign and 2) hear the vocalization at least 90% of the time when your child is signing. Let’s break this down a bit more:

  1. Understanding the word. If your child were to walk up to you and say that sound without the sign and no object around, would you know what to give them? If not, keep reinforcing the sign a little longer. Sometimes, as parents we can become so accustomed to our child’s language that we think it sounds perfect, but in reality, it’s very hard to understand. So, it may be difficult to make the decision about whether the word is clear on its own or not. If it’s hard to decide whether the sound is clear enough or not, try recording your baby’s sound and having another person listen to it or having a different person listen when it actually occurs. Can they understand it? If not, keep prompting and reinforcing the sign! If the other person can understand, you’re likely read to move on to vocal language only.
  2. Vocalizations happening regularly – 90% is a lot. You don’t need to keep specific data, but notice – do you hear the vocalization more often than not? If your child isn’t reliably using the sound or word and you stop actively prompting or accepting the sign, they won’t have any way to communicate! So be sure that vocal is happening often.

Evaluate these two things against EVERY word. You may determine that these two things exist for some words but not others, and that’s okay! You can transition to vocals for some words and not others – each word/sign should be evaluated separately, and you won’t do any harm by transitioning with one sign, but not another.

Alright, so let’s say you’ve determined the word is clear and it’s happening most of the time with the sign. You are now ready to “drop” the sign and switch purely to vocalizations. This is how you do it:

  1. Stop actively prompting the sign if you were doing so. Most of the time, kids are signing pretty independently at this point, but in case you were still providing prompts, you can stop now.
  2. If and when your child independently vocalizes without the sign – acknowledge it, provide the item and throw a party! This is what you want so if it happens independently, reinforce enthusiastically!

These next two steps are going to be EXACTLY what you learned in part 2 of the blog series:

  • Hold the item in sight but out of reach
  • You can play with the item, or otherwise make it interesting and it’s okay to wait a little bit until your child expresses interest in having the item. Remember, when we teach a child to ask for something, we are focused on your child having motivation so if it is not there, we do not want to teach them to ask for it!

Now we get into the actual vocalizing part!

  • Once your child signs and vocalizes, immediately model the vocalization. Example:
    • You hold a cup of milk out for your child. They sign milk and say “mil” “mil”
    • You say “milk”
    • At this point, your child will likely attempt to make a vocalization that will either sound better than what they did alone or will sound exactly the same as the initial try – either way, REINFORCE – that is, give the milk and say the word a few times clearly “Milk, milk, milk! You got milk!” Praise!
      • If they don’t say the word after you model it, try one more time. If they still don’t say anything, simply give the milk. We don’t want to create frustration around talking and this is all new – so your child has to experience good things even if they can’t quite say the word on their own yet. If this KEEPS happening over and over again (i.e., they don’t say anything after your vocal model) you may not be ready to drop the sign just yet and I recommend waiting a few more weeks and then tying again.
  • Continue step 5 for the items you’ve determined are clear enough to stop signing with, but don’t do it for every opportunity. Maybe every other or every third try. Again, your child is learning a different way to communicate, so if everything changes drastically at once, they could get very frustrated and stop trying all together! Make it easy and sprinkle these opportunities in to your overall communication pattern.
  • Remember, if and when your child independently vocalizes (which is likely to happen more now after you’ve tried the above steps) acknowledge it, provide the item and throw a party! You’re implementing differential reinforcement, teaching your child that vocalizations alone are the better thing to do.

Over time, you’ll find your child starts to vocalize more and more. You may not even have to implement the above strategy with every single sign. Once your child learns how to imitate your vocal model, they will start to try on their own and experience that it’s a little easier to say the item rather than to say and sign it, so their behavior will naturally switch to only vocalizing. For some kids, you’ll have to do the above process for many or all signs they’ve learned, which is perfectly okay. Practice makes perfect and the more opportunities you have to teach, the better!

Wow, what a journey we’ve been on! Communication, especially in young babies and toddlers is an extremely exciting thing! Know that you can make a difference in your child’s language development and actively work to support their language development. I hope this 3-part series has been useful in getting you there! Now, let’s get talking!!!

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