Baby signing in the real world

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"):

ResearchBlogging.orgIt'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?
Kai: More
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?
Rebecca: Drink
Mother: Drink? Please?
Rebecca: bii
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

More like this

did any of them make the sign for cork-nut?


By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

One solution might be once the children are getting older to actually have them around Deaf people for sometime so they get more used to using the signs at an older age. That might take substantially more effort.

My parent's and I are with Kai's parent's - my little sister made this incredibly annoying 'eh eh' grunt/whine noise to get our attention, particularly at the dinner table. This mostly stopped once she learned the more/please sign.

Her pre-school was predominantly developmentally challenged children and they taught various signs; some were variations of ASL, like the "more" sign for "please" (there was no attempt at grammar). This was, I assume, mostly because a number of the children were deaf, mute, or speech impaired/delayed. Now, at 10 I don't think my sister remembers any of the signs, but I remember 'frog', 'apple', 'butterfly', and several colors, in addition to 'more', 'please' (I looked that one up myself), 'drink', 'hungry', and 'finished'.

By marciepooh (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

My (almost 5-year old) hardly signs at all any more (she says "water" and "toilet"), but the adults in the family have never gotten out of the habit of communicating a few important things (it's time to go, I'm taking her to the bathroom, you take her to the bathroom, I want a drink, get some food) in sign when in public. Not, I admit, in good ASL (our most frequent utterance is a slurred "All done") but still it's awfully handy to be able to get stuff across without interrupting a spoken conversation.

My 4.5 year old signed very small vocabulary when he was pre-verbal (palate not even sophisticated enough for accurate mimicry). He had about 8-10 signs, if I recall correctly, but it was much easier to tell what he wanted. Before he had signs, he would cry if he wanted more food, cry if he was thirsty, cry if he wanted to get down from the high chair, etc. Once he got the signs for "more", "eat", "drink", "milk", "down", "sleep", "up", and "all done," combined with accurate pointing, he could pretty much communicate his basic desires. Our 16 month old is currently getting most of those signs down and is similarly easy to understand. Both Son #1 and Son #2 constructed basic sentences without us attempting to teach proper ASL grammar. So, Son #2 recently said "more" and "eat" at the same time. This is also very useful.

But does it enhance relationships with the signing community later? I don't know for certain, but I know that my Son #1 (4.5 y/o) prepared for the birth of Son #2 by becoming extremely interested in the signing manual in his pre-school classroom when he was just past 3 y/o, to the point that he knew all 25 or so signs better than some of his teachers. He knows all about how some people talk with their words and some talk with their hands, and he knows that from his (and his brother's) shared school experience. We also have a lip-reading friend and he seems to treat her limitations as a different perceptual issue, e.g. "oh, she has to see my face to hear me" rather than "this person is broken and insufficient."

Heck, if destigmatization is all that comes of signing and exposure to "talking with your hands", it will improve the relationship of hearing with deaf folk by converting hearing perceptions of deaf folk into another kind of human variation rather than a defective human body. That's a big step, even if the signing communication doesn't persist.

By Alison Reiheld (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

I feel the same way about advocating for formal ASL use with babies because it's a "real" language as I do when I hear people claim that certain words (like "ain't" when I was growing up) aren't "real" English; they're totally missing the point: communication. I'd guess that for a strong majority the purpose of teaching kids sign language in the "real" (non-lab setting) world is entirely functional - we want to find some tool, any tool, that will improve the behavior of the child (thereby providing the benefit to the parent that's exceeded by the cost of the time and effort to teach). I'm expecting my first child in a few months, and you can bet that I'm going to give this a shot...but I'm not going to worry too much about following the formalities of ASL, as I'm pretty sure that my child won't criticize me for it, and probably won't even remember.

Given that I think most parents, like Kai's, teach babies signs for functional reasons rather than for language education, I'm not surprised that sign use fades as oral skills develop (I'm not judging ASL's utility, just rolling with the unstated assumption that the parents of interest in these studies are primarily oral communicators). I do think, though, that it'd be really interesting to continue this line of study to see if the use pattern for baby signing has a long term attitudinal effect - for example, did Rebecca's parent's focus on manners from an early age make any difference in her manners when compared to children who weren't taught to sign but who were raised by similarly manners-minded parents?

About 1967 I knew a man in his 20s whose first language was ASL. His parents were both totally deaf but kept a radio, later a TV, going all the time he was home when he was very young so that he could learn English along the way. He had deaf and hearing playmates before he entered school and was fluent and nuanced in both languages as an adult. But then the plural of "anecdote" is not "data."

We taught our speech-delayed daughter signs once she turned 18 months and still had no words. She quickly learned about 30 signs and it improved our lives so much! Suddenly the frustration level around the house plummeted. She could tell us what she wanted, and there were fewer tears, on both sides. Two weeks before her 2nd birthday she had 15 spoken words and the signs slowed down. By the time she turned 27 months she was talking in long, complicated sentences. By the time she was 2 and a half most of the signs were either gone or were accompanied with the spoken word. She is 7 now, and only remembers a few signs. It was a wonderful experience, and my only regret was that I didn't teach her signs earlier!

the plural of "anecdote" is not "data."

No, it most definitely is not. This study does demonstrate that what these kids are doing with their parents generally falls short of "language." Combine this with additional anecdotes of some parents who have a lot of difficulty getting their babies to sign and you'll find that not all is sweetness and light when it comes to signing.

But clearly there is considerable data (in this study and others) supporting the idea that some signing can improve life for both parents and babies. If I was having a baby today, I'd probably try it.

It seems to me that improving understanding between the Deaf and hearing communities has little (if anything) to do with continuation of signing on the part of the child. More likely, it has to do with the experience of others involved with the child --- by learning/understanding a different way to communicate it may make people less likely to see this form of communication as "last resort" rather than just another viable option. I think this is what you see with the sibs especially. An interesting study would be measuring the attitudes of the signing children's siblings towards Deaf culture compared to age matched norms to see if it effects understanding between the Deaf and hearing communities in that way.

Even though you concluded that "the ASL community's hope that baby signing would lead to enhanced relationships with the hearing community might have been unfounded" I agree with Sascha's post above.

From my experiences, children who have been exposed to sign language have a much more positive reaction when they do encounter people who sign later on in life. My son signed until he was two years old. At 5 he didn't remember a single sign. But when he saw two people signing at the grocery store he reacted positively: "Hey, they are signing! I used to do that!"

We may not be raising a generation of fluent signers, but it would be interesting to know if we are raising a generation of children who see signing as a normal and useful means of communication rather than an indicator of a disability.

Linda Easton-Waller
Baby Signs, Inc.

Was there any follow to see how learning non-verbal communication affected how they learned verbal communication.

Did learning a sign for a word making it easier or ahrder for them to elarn the actual words?
Did learning a sign affect what sort of words they learned, or how they learned to communicate (were they more expressive, did they learn more nouns, verbs, commands?).

I find this kind of interesting. When I was teaching ESL in Japan to young children (youngest was 3, youngest I could have taught was 6 mo, thank word that didn't happen). We used a technique called MAT (Model, Action. Teach). Which involved using teacher-made signs to associate with language.

As I became more experienced and regular in my sue of signs, I found kids picked up meaning quicker (I could not translate to Japanese). I also found that those kids who joined in the actions tended to pick up proper usage more easily, even if previously they had been struggling.

I think it would be intersting tos ee how this affected children's overall communicative ability. Are they better at delivering/reading non-verbal cues, or whne faced with a new concept do they rely on verbal or signing as a way of expressing it?

There's a form of signing that's developed in the UK called Makaton - it's aimed specifically at people with learning difficulties/special needs as opposed to the deaf. You can find out more here - . It's become very popular with children - the BBC even makes TV programmes which are based around Makaton. My oldest son has Down Syndrome and it's been incredibly useful for him, he had a vocab of about 200 signs by the time he was 2 - at a time when he couldn't vocalise any distinct words.
The idea here is that because speech is delayed in a lot of children with special needs, it is easier for them to communicate through signs. Apparently there were concerns that signing could delay the onset of speech, but in my son and his peers, I've seen fantastic developments in both their signing and speech. I remember going to a party of a 5 year old boy I'd never met before, he had advanced disabilities and couldn't speak, yet using Makaton signing we were able to have a conversation.
It can come very naturally, and all the parents I know in a similar situation ot myself have used Makaton and have raved about it.
Ok, I'll go now!

I'm a stay-at-home dad, with 4-year old boy.

We taught him signs starting maybe about 1 year old, ASL-based, using a couple DVD videos ("Baby See 'n Sign"). I found video easier for learning a set of physical movements rather than looking at graphics and text in a book. And I could watch the video with my son, so learning the signs did not use scarce non-caregiving time; he liked watching the videos, too.

Similar to other posters, the signs were very useful pre-verbal, to reduce frustration when the baby wanted to tell us what he wanted. He learned the signs for body parts, articles of clothing, animals, etc .. but the most useful to us were the signs for food items. He could tell us what food he wanted, or wanted more of, rather than using verbal babbles which we didn't understand, which would result in him getting upset when we offered the wrong food. Using the signs, we usually knew what food he wanted.
So most of our signing was for labeling objects.

And like the others, we abandoned most signing once he acquired enough vocabulary. Although we've kept one sign, the sign for goodnight at bedtime, which we both sign and speak at the same time.

A few times when we have seen adults signing in public, I think my son has recognized what they are doing, and is intrigued, knowing that he used to sign also.

One other comment:
In the third paragraph, you write
"Babies can learn the signs earlier than spoken words, ... "

Maybe I'm being too picky or just wrong, but I would distinguish between babies learning to PRODUCE signs and words versus babies learning to UNDERSTAND signs and words. Clearly, experience and research shows that babies can learn to produce signs earlier than they can learn to speak. My non-informed understanding was that the control of arm and hand movement develops sooner than control of the parts of the tongue, mouth, throat etc used in speech.

And I thought that babies can understand words they hear much earlier than they can speak words -- such as when you ask them a question and they can respond by pointing. I thought this was because producing speech is more difficult than processing speech.

But I really don't know the reasons. And I have no knowledge if there is any known difference in development of babies' ability to understand SIGNS versus babies' ability understand SPEECH during the first year or two of life. But maybe other readers of this blog do.

This study does demonstrate that what these kids are doing with their parents generally falls short of "language."

Well Duh! they were not taught a language. A language has real syntax and real grammer. ASL is a real language with real syntax and real grammer. What these children were taught was not ASL, they were taught a bunch of random signs without syntax or grammer. Of course it isn't a real language without real syntax and real grammer.

It is my understanding that ASL only developed a "real" syntax and a "real" grammer when children learned it as their first language. Those children then modified it such that it did have "real" syntax and "real" grammer and not the artificial construction put on it by the original non-first-language signers who originated the first pidgen ASL.