Does baby sign language work?

Certified Baby Sign Language Instructor, Anika Repole Wilson and Signing Mom, Lauri-Ann Ainsworth, appearing on talk show Smile Jamaica on the 13th of January. They even have a website:

Certified Baby Sign Language Instructor, Anika Repole Wilson and Signing Mom, Lauri-Ann Ainsworth, appearing on talk show Smile Jamaica on the 13th of January. They even have a website:

Remember my post from a couple years ago about baby sign language? Well, since then, my opinions have changed. Not a 180° change, though. I’ve always thought that the focus on individual signs rather than actual language structure was a flaw in the concept. But now, I realise I actually dislike the concept. First of all, there’s no such thing as “baby sign language”. We don’t have anything called “baby spoken language” so why would there be such a thing as “baby sign language”. There is sign language, yes. But, honestly, having your baby learn a few signs isn’t helping them acquire a language; it’s just having them learn words. In my post from 2012, I quoted from a site that says that signs are easier to see, and so easier to replicate, than spoken words. But a site I was shown recently has this to say:

This claim is unsupported in language acquisition studies. Signing looks easy, but in fact, it isn’t. Whether speaking or signing, there is a limited number of the phonological units (i.e. sounds in speech or primes in signlan) that constrains the productions in vocal-aural system and visual-spatial system. In speech, the initial stop consonants (e.g. b, d, k) are found in babbling and early words. The fricatives (s, z, v) are acquired much later. The English word “mother” is adapted to “mama” to fit within baby’s phonological development. The same is true for manual babbling. The early handshapes found in early words are: “A”, “5”, “B”, “1” “C” and baby O. The other difficult handshapes such as R, W, 8, T are acquired much later.
Baby sign language: myths you’re led to believe

This makes sense. Last semester, I learnt a bit about stages of language acquisition in babies, and this seemed to fit right in. Just like the child has to learn to control the vocal apparatus, the child has to learn how to control the signing apparatus. The article goes on to say:

The babbling syllable for “milk” in ASL (repetitive closing-opening-hand) is kind of a tricky or misleading idea of being the earlier signed word than spoken. If the English word milk were “baba”, this production would have been no earlier than the ASL’s production “milk”.

Looking again at the video I posted in 2012, I see that played out. The child’s attempts at making the signs for ‘father’ (for which, by the way, she gets the location wrong), ‘mother’, and “more” are accompanied by vocal expressions of “dada”, “mama”, and “mo”. “Father”, “mother”, and even “dad” are hard words to say at that age (one year old), and so the child has to adjust them so she can say them. Harder words like “milk” are not spoken at all by the baby; there’s harder so approximate to voice, and easier to sign. “Kiwi” is another word that’s not said, but her attempt at approximation is interesting. She can’t fingerspell K-I-W-I, so she just does a little moving thingy with her fingers.

So, what we’re seeing here is a child clearly at an early linguistic stage using easy sounds and easy handshapes (and other parameters of signs) to approximate both spoken and signed words. Yes, knowing some signs allows the child to express some things that she could not before, since these basic hardshapes (the equivalent of easy consonants such as ‘d’, and ‘m’), and a variety of sign location are more available to them; so, it is easier than trying to approximate difficult spoken words. But there are quite a few signs that would be just as hard for a baby to sign as the word “kiwi” is to say. Therefore, yes, early communication can be facilitated through this method. But, I think that, contrary to the claims about ‘baby sign language’, it doesn’t speed up language development. How does all this affect my opinion of ‘baby sign language’?

Church sign

Church sign

Honestly, I fear that this is just another example of cultural appropriation by hearing people. Just like with what I call church sign, hearing people are taking the language of the Deaf and using them without proper knowledge, and due respect to the culture. Plus, when these children learn ‘baby sign language’, it will most likely be discarded and when they have acquired enough spoken language.* And so where are the cognitive benefits the child is supposed to get?

I don’t think we expect that if an English-speaking parent teacher a child a total of 20 Japanese words that this would affect the child much. So, why expect the same for signing? In my opinion, ‘baby sign language’ is really a cheap attempt at creating a shortcut to what would truly help a child’s cognitive development: bi- and multilingualism. If a child is exposed to full language at a young age, he or she will grow the language just as naturally as the arms and legs grow.

So, how you learn JSL, or Spanish, or Japanese and use it around your baby? Maybe reach out to that Deaf cousin of yours and have her spend time with you and your baby, be in the child’s life. Then you’d truly be giving your child a gift.

*Or worse, the child grows up with limited signing capability, and thinks, like so many hearing people today, “Oh, I know sign language!” and all manner of evil ensues.

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3 Responses to Does baby sign language work?

  1. Read Robyn says:

    Interesting take. I think the topic could do with some more expansion, especially from the point of view of people who promote baby sign language.


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