Approximations are the signing equivalents of baby talk. Your baby is communicating and you understand him or her, although the sign is not technically correct and may be unrecognizable to other signing adults. Signs are rather complex movements to a baby, and it is likely that your baby will not use them correctly at first. For example, the sign Dad might just be a hand waving somewhere near baby’s head. You and baby know that this gesture refers to Dad, even though the sign is not correct.
It is important to encourage any signing efforts while also reinforcing correct usage. So, when my daughter signs Dad with her arm waving near her head, we encourage her by saying “Yes, Dad.” While we verbally encourage her, however, we demonstrate the correct usage (hand spread, thumb tapping on forehead). This way, she has a positive experience with signing while also continuing to learn the proper usage of signs.
This method, by the way, can also be applied to verbal language development. When children learn to speak, they also use approximations. While their baby talk might be cute, it is important to help them learn correct pronunciation to avoid speech problems. When a toddler exclaims “Look at the LELLOW dog, Mommy,” you can respond with “Yes, I see the YELLOW dog!”
Encourage effort while reinforcing correct usage.