Types of Signing Explained

Although many people talk about “baby signing”, there is actually no such thing. “Baby signing” can refer to any type of sign language taught to babies, including Makaton, British Sign Language (BSL), American sign language (ASL) or even just signs that they have made up themselves to use with their babies. All of these types of signing are perfectly fine to use with babies, as long as they are kept consistent for that baby to avoid confusion. However, there is a strong case for using Makaton over other types of sign language when signing with babies. Here are just a few reasons why we use Makaton at Little Angels…

  • Most nurseries and primary schools in the UK use Makaton. This means that if your child knows Makaton signs, they will likely be able to communicate with childcare staff, even if they are not yet able to speak. This also means that they are more likely to be able to communicate with other children who can sign, helping their social development.

  • Makaton is designed to be used to support spoken language, not replace it, making it ideal for children who are learning to speak. It is specifically designed for babies, children and adults who can hear and have difficulty with speech, usually due to their young age but also sometimes due to learning difficulties which affect speech such as Downs Syndrome and some types of Autism. As such, Makaton is designed to be simple and easy to learn without any of the complicated gestures, body language and grammatical structures that make BSL and ASL more difficult.

  • Makaton is often used alongside speech to help children and adults to  communicate. It is common for people to eventually stop using signs as their speech develops. BSL and ASL, on the other hand, are complete languages with their own structure and grammar rules, and do not usually use speech with the signs. This makes them less useful for supporting children’s speech development.

  • While the word order is the same with Makaton as with spoken language, BSL and ASL often use a different word order to spoken language with different grammatical structures.

  • BSL is the language used by the deaf community in the UK and, as with any spoken language, is constantly evolving according to local dialects and regional variations. Makaton, however, uses the same signs throughout the country. As a lot of the Makaton signs are based on BSL, people who know BSL can usually understand someone who is signing Makaton. However, the reverse is not true as BSL is far more complicated than Makaton.

  • Makaton uses something called “keyword signing”. This means that rather than signing every word in a sentence, Makaton picks out the key words to get the meaning across (eg. In the sentence “Shall we play with your ball?”, you would only sign “we”, “play” and “ball”). Both BSL and ASL would require you to sign every word in the sentence. This can be a bit overwhelming for babies as it’s too much to take in all at once.

  • Makaton requires the signer to speak and sign much more slowly than they would if they were just speaking normally or using BSL or ASL. For babies, this is ideal as it allows them the time to process what they are seeing and hearing.

  • Knowing Makaton becomes especially useful in the likely situation of your child going to school with a child who has communication difficulties, as they will be able to communicate and understand them.

  • ASL is a complete language used by the deaf community in America, with different signs from BSL and Makaton, and grammar and sentence structures all of its own (interestingly, it is actually based on French, although it is not commonly used in Europe). However, be aware that lots of “baby signing” books and DVDs available commercially are actually American and therefore based on ASL. This is not a problem as long as you are aware that this is what you are buying and choose to consistently use ASL over the other types of signing- just be aware that it is not compatible with BSL or Makaton.