Baby sign language
Baby sign language is the use of manual signing in order to communicate with infants and toddlers. A better term would be "baby signing" since they are not using a full sign language, but a limited number of "stand alone" manual signs (most often taken from a sign language like ASL). While infants and toddlers have a desire to communicate their needs and wishes, they lack the ability to do so clearly because the production of speech lags behind cognitive ability in the first years of life. Proponents of baby sign language say that this gap between desire to communicate and ability often leads to frustration and tantrums. However, since hand-eye coordination develops sooner than acquisition of verbal skills, infants can learn simple signs for common words such as "eat", "sleep", "more", "hug", "play", "cookie", and "teddy bear" before they are able to produce understandable speech. Each individual infant will develop the ability to sign at a slightly varied stages in his or her growth. Before the infant will be able to sign it is necessary for the infant to be able to focus on the hand movement and have the cognitive skill to link a certain gesture to an item resulting in why babies will begin signing at various ages.
In an article in the British Psychological Society's The Psychologist Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon has considered in detail the theoretical bases behind the growth of this phenomenon and some of the claims made by its supporters.
As Doherty-Sneddon points out, so-called "baby signing" is not entirely new. Variants have been used by speech and language therapists for decades with children who have impairments to their speech, their cognitive abilities, or both. It is widely recognized that communication is at the heart of child development, be it cognitive, social, emotional or behavioral.
An American team led by Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn studied 11-month-old children. The children were assigned into two groups in this study; the first group consisted of children that used Baby Sign Language and the second group consisted of children that did not use Baby Sign Language. Up until the age of three, the children's speech and language development was monitored. Results showed that the average scores of children in the study that were in the group that used Baby Sign Language were found to be higher than the control group who did not use Baby Sign Language. By the age of twenty-four months, the signing children had a developmental advantage of three months over the non-signing children. By the time these signing children reached the age of thirty-six months, this advantage had increased dramatically. The advantage had now increased from a three-month developmental advantage to an equivalent twelve-month advantage in their overall language skills and comprehension by the age of thirty-six months.
- Larger expressive and receptive oral-language vocabularies
- More advanced mental development
- A reduction in problematic behavior like tantrums resulting from frustration
- Improved parent-child relationships.
- Advance comprehension
- Ability to verbalize needs
- Reduce aggression such as biting and hitting in result of the baby being able to express its needs
- Increasing parent's respect for the baby
- Parents become more responsive and observant of their baby
- Promotes literacy
The mechanisms underlying these benefits are proposed to include:
- an increased number of episodes of joint visual attention during interactions between parents and toddlers, known to be associated with improved language skills
- empowering the infant to focus the topic and context of conversation
- the discussion and clarification of concepts
- added practice with the symbolic function.
Doherty-Sneddon claims a key issue is ensuring that sufficient and appropriately designed research is available to back the claims made in relation to baby signing. A literature review concluded that although benefits were reported in 13 of 17 studies, various methodological weaknesses leave the evidence unconfirmed. Certainly, research into the effects of baby signing needs better control groups, such as children who are involved in equally interesting and fun activities based around adult and child language interaction, but not baby signing.
Volterra et al. (2006)  conclude enhanced gesture input for hearing children is a catalyst for gesture acquisition, and especially the use of representational form and hence symbolic communicative function. They add that this enhancement is short-lived (to between 12 and 15 months of age). Doherty-Sneddon argues, however, that this timescale represents only a general norm. The enhancement and advantage is far more extended in the many toddlers who do not speak until well after their second birthdays.
Doherty-Sneddon concludes by arguing there are three different levels of support for the benefits of baby signing:
- indicative, if not evidentially strong, evidence from baby signing research;
- related evidence from deaf sign and hearing gesture/language research;
- compelling anecdotal support from families who have embraced the approach.
Joseph Garcia, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and a leading proponent of use of ASL in communicating with infants and toddlers, began with his graduate thesis in 1986, an analysis of the role sign language could play in early childhood language acquisition. His research indicated babies who are exposed to signs regularly and consistently at six to seven months of age can begin using signs effectively by the eighth or ninth month.
Research by Bonvillian & Folven indicates that children raised in a signing environment produce their first signs at a mean age of 8.2 months, whereas Capute et al. found a mean age of 11.3 months for the production of the first word in speaking children. This acquisition advantage has been found to extend to multi-word and multi-sign milestones as well. Signing children acquired 10 sign vocabularies at a mean age of 13.1 months, compared with 10-word vocabularies at a mean age of 15.1 months for speaking children. Milestones of 50 signs and 50 words were acquired at mean ages of 18 months and 19.6 months respectively.
Two-sign combinations were first produced at a mean age of 17.1 months, while two-word combinations were first produced between 18 and 24 months. Acquisition of morphology or inflection was not found to differ greatly between signing and speaking children.
In 1998, a program was conducted at A. Sophie Rogers Infant-Toddler Laboratory School in Ohio State University by Kimberlee Whaley. Infants as young as 9 months old and their teachers began to learn to use some signs from the American Sign Language to communicate with each other. The program was not intended to teach American Sign Language, rather to use signs to communicate effectively. The program found that children would use the signs they learned in the classroom at home. Another finding indicated that girls use signs more than boys.
Researchers have suggested the possibility of parents and experimenters being overly liberal in attributing sign or word status to early attempts at communication by children. There is not a universal consensus on the criteria for differentiating a child's sign or word from a more simple gesture or vocalization. Large differences in acquisition arise when only signs that label objects rather than request objects are considered. In this case the mean age of first sign production becomes 12.6 months and is more comparable with the mean age of first word production in speaking children (11.3 months).
It has also been found that children sometimes produce a combination of a pointing gesture and a spoken word earlier than they would produce a spoken two-word combination. As not all studies are uniform in accepting or disqualifying pointing gestures as signs, this can also lead to discrepancies depending on how the research is carried out.
Additionally, two possible explanations have been suggested for the differences shown in language acquisition between speaking and signing children.
- Multiple Timing Mechanism
- Under this theory, separate developmental mechanisms would control vocabulary and syntax development. Earlier maturation of the visual system as compared with the oral system would result in the first sign being easier to produce vs. the first word. This would also allow for the separate development of vocabulary and syntax.
- Unitary Timing Mechanism
- This developmental mechanism would be activated at the start of language learning and would result in a relatively fixed amount of time between language acquisition milestones. Alternatively, a unitary mechanism could activate at the same time in all children, irrespective of the onset of language learning. Environmental or peripheral factors, such as language modality or differences in a language's morphology and syntax could explain the differences between acquisition milestones in speaking and signing children.
Parents and caregivers can sign to babies beginning at birth (using signs for simple ideas like "milk" and "more"). Comprehension on the part of the baby can begin at six months, and the children can begin producing signs themselves around 10 months. Parents and caregivers should be aware that infants will recognize their first sign before producing their own. They should also be patient with their children when they first begin signing to their children because it may take a little while before the baby can understand or even produce signs themselves. Consistency is crucial when teaching your infant how to sign. Infants learn through repetition that is why it is essential for parents and caregivers to repeatedly use signs. Every time an action is performed the caregiver should sign the action to the child. When using a sign the parent should say the word out loud because this will help the baby link the gestures to verbal skill development.
There have been studies to show that, even by increasing the use of gesture, not necessarily use of a sign language (such as ASL) can increase the richness of a child's linguistic development and speed future processing.
Advanced Gesture through Interaction with Parent Goodwyn, Acredolo & Brown (2000) have investigated the effects of instructing parents to encourage gesture use on language development. There were three groups studied. The "gestural training group" parents were given a set of 8 toys and told what gestures would be used with each toy. They were also encouraged to create gestures or use isolated ASL signs with their children; parents were presumably not native signers. Both the experimental and control groups were given receptive and expressive tests at 11, 15, 19, 24, 30 and 36 months. Receptive language means being able to recognize words and signs while expressive language means being able to form words or signs. The study found that children whose parents taught them symbolic gestures performed better on both expressive and receptive verbal language tests than children who had not been encouraged to learn such gestures.The results of these tests proved that children who were introduced to symbolic gestures had advance verbal development.
The most interesting point seems to be that the Gestural Training Group may have small but reliable advantages in early language milestones other than age of the first word:
- "enhanced symbolic gesturing seemed to benefit Gesture Training infants' receptive and expressive language development."
- The evidence helps to alleviate previous notions that gesture or sign language might interfere with or slow down language development.
A naturalistic case study that was done in Central Texas focused on ideologies and socialization of baby sign language. This study had 3 families that participated. This study was performed through naturalistic interactions that took place in each of the families home. They were videotaped during meal and play time for a total of 7 hours. These ideologies value early communication with infants and promote the adaptation of the physical, social, and linguistic environment to their perceived needs. In this study it showed that baby-signing families used signs to socialize their children into particular interaction rituals.
Case study on bilingual exposure
Marco was "a bilingual hearing child of deaf parents exposed to sign and [oral] language from birth". Though both parents were deaf, they used both Italian Sign Language (LIS) and spoken Italian, at some times simultaneously. Marco was also regularly enrolled in a day care with Italian-speaking peers.
Gesture was considered anything that a hearing (Italian) monolingual child had also been observed producing, whereas LIS was only considered in use if it resembled an adult speaker's LIS or a simplified sign, as judged by a native signer.
The study noted these points as interesting:
- Under these criteria, Marco did not appear to have a "sign advantage." "Sign advantage" refers to the hypothesis that children who learn sign language and spoken language simultaneously will reach early linguistic milestones more rapidly in sign than in speech.
- Differences appeared in Marco's use of deictic and representational gestures as compared to those of monolingual children.
- "While Marco used proportionately more representational than deictic gestures at both comparison points, monolingual children produced deictic gestures much more frequently than representational gestures."
- He was able to use representational gestures more comfortably and practically, showing that "exposure to sign language may enhance a children's appreciation of the representational potential of the manual modality; this may, in turn, generalize to gesture use."
- Marco differed from all the studied monolingual peers in that he was able to combine and use two representational gestures.
Relation to language development
Sign language benefits a baby's language development in several ways, including increased vocabulary, more advanced literacy skills, sentence structure, greater expression in gestures and spoken language engagement in two-way conversations, and allowing communication between different spoken languages. Babies who engage in early sign language are found to have greater vocabularies by the time they are toddlers. Along with language skills, early use of sign language enhances cognitive, academic, social, and emotional development.
According to Karen Emmorey, research has concluded that children develop language skills around the same time, regardless of being taught verbal or sign language. However, it appears that children who learn sign language begin manual "babbling" with gestures earlier than the spoken babbles of a baby exposed to verbal language.
A study performed by the National Institutes of Health looked at two groups of babies: one group was taught baby sign language, the other verbal language. As the study progressed, babies from the signing group showed more advancement in language skills than the verbal group, including a greater advancement in verbal speaking. The difference in language skills was still apparent in the participants later on in life. By age 8, children from the original signing group had higher IQ's and ranked higher within their classes than the children from the verbal language group.
Another study, involving two hard of hearing baby boys, looked at the significance of when baby sign language is introduced to a child. One boy's hearing loss was determined shortly after birth, and began learning baby sign language very early. The second boy was not determined to have hearing loss until he was two years old, and therefore was not exposed to baby sign language until then. The results of this study showed that the boy who was taught baby sign language had better acquisition of overall language skills, while the other boy, who was taught verbal language until his hearing impairment was detected, had a much more difficult time with language skills. Baby sign language can prove to be crucial towards language development in some cases, yet does not cause any harm to those who do not have hearing impairments.
Baby sign language promotes communication before a child is able to verbally communicate with others. Since hand-eye coordination develops earlier than a child's ability to speak verbally, baby sign language allows a baby to begin experiencing and developing his or her language skills before he or she is physically able to speak. Since gestures are part of normal speech, teaching baby sign language allows babies to learn an aspect of communication that is used just as commonly as verbal language. The advantage is that babies are able to learn gestures before verbal skills, and therefore those who learn baby sign language acquire language skills sooner than those who do not.
In popular culture
Baby sign language was a plot element in the movie Meet the Fockers, where Jack (Robert De Niro's character) had taught his grandson "Little Jack" sign language. The twins that portrayed Little Jack (Bradley and Spencer Pickren) learned sign language from watching Signing Time! videos.
In today's society many parents are interested in learning how to sign in order to communicate with their infants. By signing it will reduce frustration for both the caregiver and child because the infant will now be able to communicate their needs through signing which will give parents the opportunity to understand. There are numerous ways to learn how to sign. For example, there are sit and play workshops that teach parents and children how to sign through play. Parents can also use a program called Baby Signs that help parents develop signs based on gestures babies already make. A popular program Sign with your Baby uses the basics of American Sign Language to teach simple signs such as milk and more. Through these programs it makes it possible for hearing parents to teach their infants how to sign.
- Child development
- The Connected Baby (documentary film)
- Language acquisition
- Signing Time!
- Manual babbling
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- Promotional video to encourage signing in children
- Signing Time – PBS Show Teach Signs to Children
- Sign with Me Cheat Sheet
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