That's So Abstract!


Parents in my classes and presentations often have a hard time believing that their babies understand the meaning of words like MORE, FINISHED and ALL DONE.  “How can they understand abstract concepts?”, they ask. I don’t know how, but I know they do!

The picture above is proof of that, but I’ll get to the story behind the picture in a minute. Signing superstar, Kenny, was about nine months old when this photo was taken. You probably noticed him and his mom, Keli, in their starring role on the Hop to Signaroo website homepage. One the homepage, you’ll notice that Keli is signing EAT. Kenny was certainly understanding, so we had to break out the goldfish crackers, as we were about twenty minutes into the shoot and you can’t keep signing EAT to a baby and not feed him! Kenny signed MORE several times during the photo shoot, asking Momma for more food, and once Kenny had his fill of crackers but Momma kept signing EAT, Kenny started feeding her…and there was our money shot! Not only did Kenny clearly understand the EAT sign, but he was also understanding and using the MORE sign, which was his first sign at seven months. And when his mom kept signing EAT, he figured she must want to eat because he was full, so he started feeding her…too cute!

In Kenny’s mind EAT and MORE were not different types of signs, concrete versus abstract, they both had meaning to him. When you think about it, everything must be an abstract concept to your baby until they make the connection. For objects like BALL or DOG, parents label the object repeatedly and the baby makes the connection, but initially BALL and DOG are abstract concepts to your baby until the repeated episodes of verbal labeling “stick” and the baby now knows what a DOG is.  The same concept is true for less concrete or abstract concepts like MORE and ALL DONE.

The photo above was taken about ten minutes later, after Kenny finished his snack. Kenny was finished with his goodies and finished with the photo shoot! He signed ALL DONE and started crawling for the door. Momma pulled him back into the frame and kept signing, to be sure we had a few more shots to choose from. But again Kenny signed ALL DONE and headed for the door. Momma pulled him back into the frame one last time and this time Kenny took a nose dive into Momma’s lap! We weren’t responding to his ALL DONE sign, so he must have figured that showing the camera his backside might do the trick! Yes, the talent was clearly done for the day! Not only was Kenny voicing his desire to hit the road and get on with his action-packed day, but ALL DONE was a sign that his parents signed most often at the end of mealtime. Yet, nine month old Kenny not only understood the concept of ALL DONE but also knew to use it when he was done with anything, being fed as well as being the star of a photo shoot!

Kenny’s understanding of abstract concepts and use of sign language to express them is not uncommon for babies. I often hear from my families after class and they are floored that there babies have signed ALL DONE when they were bored on an airplane or wanted out of their car seat or signed MORE when they wanted more kisses. Yes, babies are that smart and can express abstract needs and wants through sign language long before they can speak, just as well as they can sign and identify concrete objects like PACIFIER and BOOK. Need further proof? Check out Kenny two months earlier. His first sign was MORE and we has signing that just four weeks after his parents started my class and began signing with him. In this video, Kenny does an approximation of MORE which looks like clapping, because he doesn’t have the fine motor skills just yet to execute the sign as an adult would, but he certainly has the cognitive skills to understand and use the sign and when you watch the video it’s quite clear he’s asking for MORE! Also, look at another Hop to Signaroo superstar – eight month old Olive signed her first sign of MORE in class, and was kind enough to do it when KING 5 was visiting my class! Her approximation is a little different than Kenny’s but again it’s clear she’s signing MORE and she’s do it along with the song we were practicing in class! I work with the smartest babies on the planet, don’t I?!

The moral of the story? Use a variety of signs with your baby and use them in a variety of settings for further reinforcement. There’s no need to simply focus on concrete objects and label those through sign language. Speak to your baby as you normally would and focus on adding the signs you want to empower your baby to tell you, such as MORE, EAT, MILK, ALL DONE, PACIFIER, DIAPER CHANGE and so on and you will be amazed at the concrete items your baby can tell you they want, as well as the abstract concepts they can also communicate many, many months before they’re able to speak. Happy signing!

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