Baby sign language, has become increasingly popular over past few years and has been targeted at moms as a way to bridge the gap between desire to communicate and the ability to do so.
In order to understand sign language, it is important to understand what language is.
Language is a symbolic, rule governed system used to convey a message.
The symbols can be words, (either spoken or written) or gestures.
Baby Sign is NOT a language, but a symbolic auxiliary to oral language. The signs or gestures resemble the object being referred to. For example, the Baby Sign for ‘sleep’ is made with the palms of both hands pressed together and put next to the ear.
The American Sign Language and British Sign Language sign for sleep is different. This is not to say that there is not overlap between the two and some Baby signs and Sign Language signs are the same.
Proponents of Baby Sign, claim that teaching some sign language to a typically-developing baby will:
- Encourage the baby to speak sooner
- Develop a larger spoken vocabulary
- Improve cognitive skills
- Facilitate parent child relationships
However, it is important to acknowledge that language and communication develop long before your baby has real words. Babies spontaneously use and learn gesture and that mothers gesture to them. In fact, the development of gesture in babies serves as the first communication between adults and babies.
Typically developing children begin using gesture at around 7 months.
A baby’s gross motor skills are better than their fine motor skills which are required to control the articulation of speech.
Baby Sign Language attempts to capitalize on the baby’s natural tendency to gesture before they are capable of speaking.
However, despite what the proponents of Baby Sign state, there is very little evidence to support that baby sign provides all the benefits it claims to. Karen Levin in her paper on baby-sign questions how babies who were taught signs would compare to babies enrolled in a ‘talk to your baby’ type program.
In fact, my experience with my own son who’s first word was shaped into “die” together with the use of a gun gesture is discussed in my post on “Teach your toddler to talk.”
Is Baby Sign Worth it?
Consider the Following:
Is Baby Sign just another fad or pressure placed on parents to do the best for their child. As Dr Karen Levin states; “the popularity of baby signing programmes throughout the world might not be due to the efficacy of the programmes, but due to the societal pressure under which modern parents are placed with regard to the development of their children.”
Organised Baby Sign programmes don’t come cheap and parents need to weigh up the cost of these programmes.
Babies can only master baby signs once they have developed skills such as being able to sustain their attention, maintain eye contact with the parent, follow the parent’s eye gaze to an object being named and/or signed and then create the link between the word and the sign. Imitation of the sign/gesture does not mean that the baby is able to use the sign meaningfully.
Learning a Second Language
Bilingual children have been shown to have increased cognitive benefits over monolingual children. Teaching American or British Sign Language may provide the same benefits. BUT unless you have a hearing impaired person in your family, you need to weigh up the benefits of teaching American Sign Language versus French or Spanish.
Bonding and Fun Factor
When you teach you child sign, you must get down at their level and look at them. You need to interact with your child, label, talk, describe, make eye contact and demonstrate the sign. You also will often show your child how to make the sign hand-over-hand. All of these interactions can help increase the bond you have with your child. In addition, if this is an activity that is fun for both parent and baby, then it may facilitate the parent -child relationship.
Promoting Language Development
Whilst Baby Sign per se may not necessarily promote language development, being aware of your baby’s non-verbal communicative messages, interpreting them and responding to them may promote language development.
There is evidence that babies of deaf parents use sign early, and there is value and benefit in teaching signs to babies that are communicatively impaired or at- risk babies.
Finally, this video clip of a mother teaching her baby to say ‘happy’ will definitely leave you smiling. What I found so interesting, is that the baby did not imitate the gesture at all.
Teaching signs to typically developing babies, is a choice and not necessarily a benefit.
I would love to hear your views.