Take a look at this video made by fellow ScienceBlogger Dr. Isis. She’s talking with her son, a toddler who adorably mimics her as she says very complicated words such as “Adventures in Ethics and Science” and “Wackaloon” (but sadly, not “Cognitive Daily”):
It’s cute, but it’s difficult to say whether Dr. Isis is really talking with her child. The difficulty babies have pronouncing words has led many parents to suspect they might be able to communicate better with their children using hand signs.
Last week we talked about a study suggesting that teaching babies even a few signs like those used by the Deaf can help babies and their parents communicate. Babies can learn the signs earlier than spoken words, and these signs may represent a marked improvement in the ability of parents to communicate with their babies. This can mean that babies cry less and both parents and children get along better.
But what does this communication look like in the real world, outside of a laboratory setting? Do babies stop signing as they get older? Why? One advocate of ASL (American Sign Language) suggested that the baby-signing movement might improve understanding between the Deaf and hearing communities. Does it live up to that promise?
A team led by Ginger Pizer followed three signing families over several months to see how signing was (and was not) used in a realistic setting. They videotaped the parents interacting with their toddlers at mealtimes and playtime, documenting the use of signs both to track how many signs were used and the context in which they were used.
One major controversy in the baby-signing movement is whether to teach babies formal ASL, or to simply make up signs to represent the important things in a baby’s life — pacifier, juice, diaper, blanket, and so on. The problem some parents have with ASL is that many of the movements are too complicated for infants to learn. Since ASL is a true language, it has a complex grammar that can be hard for parents to learn. But other argue that as long as you’re going to teach a child a different language, you might as well teach them a real one.
The parents in this study all chose ASL, but all of them made modifications to the signs so they were easier for their children to perform. None of them taught (or even learned) proper ASL grammar. But all three toddlers did learn and use a wide variety of signs, well before they were able to say the words in English.
All the children were toddlers when they were filmed, about 18 months of age. “Daniel” produced 24 different signs, and his parents said he knew 9 more. “Kai” said 8 ASL words, and knew 9 more. “Rebecca” produced 12 signs and knew 5 more. But the types of words they knew depended on their personality and their parents’ priorities.
Daniel liked naming things. He often asked his parents to tell him the names of objects around the room and in picture books. Kai’s favorite sign was more (I’m bolding all ASL words in this post), which he used both to indicate that he wanted more of something, and also to say that he wanted something new:
Mother: Do you want me to get some grapes for you, Kai?
Mother: You want more? Why don’t you come over here. Wanna come over here and have some grapes?
Kai: No (getting up)
Mother: No? Yes?
Kai: More (walking to kitchen, laughing)
So at this age, 15.5 months, Kai used some English words and some signs, but the signs appear to take precedence over the words, which here he used in a joking, non-serious fashion (our kids still make the same joke — but it’s much funnier when a 15-month-old does it).
Rebecca’s parents focused on politeness and manners, as this conversation illustrates:
Rebecca: (pointing to cup) em
Mother: Drink? Drink?
Mother: Drink? Please?
Mother: (gives cup to Rebecca) Thank you.
At 17 months, Rebecca’s pronunciation of English words was not very good: She used “bii” to say please, and the non-word “em” to get her parents’ attention. She could sign drink and please, and as you can see, her parents encouraged her to use “please” before granting her request.
Given these tendencies, it’s not surprising that Daniel used labels most often, while Rebecca and Kai used signs more frequently for requests (like More or Drink), and rarely used labels. More than half the time, Rebecca’s signs followed the identical sign or spoken word from her parents. Daniel and Kai followed their parents’ lead a little less, with about a third of their signs immediately following the same word or sign from their parents.
It’s remarkable how frequently the signs were not used for conveying novel information, but simply to confirm a parent’s request. It’s possible to read this as damning evidence for the pro-signing movement, but Kai’s parents differed.
There was a point before he was really using more that he would just point and make this really annoying “ay, ay, ay, ay, ay.” So we spent a couple days just telling him, ya know like “show us with your hands, show us with your hands.” And once he got that down, then the “ay, ay” thing went away. Oh, that was so nice!
But in all three children, once they began to master spoken English, they gradually discarded signing. By the time Daniel was four, he didn’t remember having signed at all. The parents of the children admitted that they rarely used the sign for a word once the child learned it, and they encouraged their children to use spoken language once they were able to speak.
So it appears that the ASL community’s hope that baby signing would lead to enhanced relationships with the hearing community might have been unfounded. These parents, as well as many more families that the researchers tracked on online forums, simply discarded sign language as soon as it lost its utility.
Ginger. Pizer, Keith. Walters, Richard P. Meier (2007). Bringing Up Baby with Baby Signs: Language Ideologies and Socialization in Hearing Families Sign Language Studies, 7 (4), 387-430 DOI: 10.1353/sls.2007.0026