Bilingual Infant Signing

Lisa Smith Comer-Eat

Q: I want to encourage my baby to use signs. However, we are already using two spoken languages in our home. Will my baby get confused if we add signs to the mix?
When children first start learning about language, they make one-to-one correspondences between words and the objects (or actions) they represent. For example, a baby in an English-only environment makes the connection,

the white stuff in my bottle = ‘milk’

However, babies in bilingual environments will have two labels from which to choose. For example, infants from a French/English setting can use either ‘milk’ or ‘lait.’ However, because of their developmental need to establish a one-to-one correspondence, these babies will initially choose either ‘milk’ OR ‘lait,’ but usually not both – at least not at first.

the white stuff in my bottle = ‘milk’ OR ‘lait’

As babies grow into toddlers and acquire larger vocabularies, they start to figure out that there can be two totally different words that share the same meaning. In other words, through exposure to both languages, children eventually conclude that

‘milk’ = ‘lait’

This process can take a long time, and this is where using signs can help. By giving infants the same visual symbol (sign) for both ‘lait’ and ‘milk,’ you make the job of connecting the object with the meanings of both words MUCH easier for babies. When the baby hears the French word “lait” and sees it paired with the same sign used when he hears the English word “milk,” the result is “Aha! These words mean the same thing!” Simply put, the sign speeds up recognition of the equivalence between the two words.

Rather than confusing your bilingual child, using infant sign language will help smooth the road to understanding and speaking both languages.

For more information on the Baby Signs® Program, please call 1-877-497-2229 or visit

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