“Is Baby Sign Language an Essential or a Ripoff?”: Comments on article

I recently came across this article entitled “Is Baby Sign Language an Essential or a Ripoff?” by Pamela Paul, posted on a website called Babble: the magazine and community for a new generation of parents. It is one parent’s experience with teaching her baby to sign, along with plenty of commentary thoughts on the subject.

As a parent who signs with their child, I have some thoughts about this. I also have the added advantage of having worked for Two Little Hands Productions for several years and seeing for myself the many testimonials and feedback that come in from our customers. I thought our readers would enjoy a little dialogue on this topic, so I’m posting some of my thoughts in response to this article, and I welcome YOURS, too. So… here we go!

I think the author painted an excellent picture of the world of baby sign language for those who might be new to it, talking briefly about benefits, classes and DVDs (no mention of Signing Time here though!), and the body of research that supports this trend. She even referred to the baby signing trend as a bit of an ‘epidemic’, which attests to the explosive growth witnessed in this industry.

However, much of the remainder of the article was aimed at undermining the benefits and poking holes in some of the research methodology:

“The results were also inconsistent. One early study measured an improvement in language at the very beginning of the training, but by the time the babies reached two years of age the advantages linked to signing had disappeared. The researchers were unable to establish any of the other benefits attributed to baby signing, finding no evidence of improved emotional development, cognitive development, or parent-child bonding; indeed, these areas weren’t even explored in the studies. Moreover, the research focused on signing taught by Baby Signs-trained parents.”

Here’s my beef with this: if parents are only signing with their children because they want to access the touted scientific benefits like reading earlier, higher IQs and so forth, I personally think they are barking up the wrong tree. I am really bothered by parents who over-stimulate their little ones in an effort to secure their child’s place as the smartest kid on the block. That’s not only unneccesary, it’s unfair and potentially damaging to the child.

Those who sign with their child(ren) would probably agree that the most apparent advantages revolve simply around communication. You don’t need research and stats to prove that – just your own personal experience. The bottom line is that it works. The rest… the fancy schmancy benefits and all that … is just gravy and hopefully not the main goal of signing with your baby.

I think it is also important to note here that the research to which the author is referring is Acredolo and Goodwyn, which backs the whole Baby Signs program, which, in my understanding, largely consists of adapted signs that they believe are easier for babies to do. This might limit the scope and reach for any exclusive Baby Signers: they’ll use signs as a bridge for communication before speech, and once they start talking, they’ll probably drop signing. It really depends on the parents’ goal. So it is not really saying much, in my opinion, to hear that that those who have looked into the aforementioned research have a hard time validating any benefits after two years. That’s probably right about the time they stopped communicating with signs in favor of speech, and would be true for anyone who is simply signing for early communication, regardless of what program or class or DVD they use.

However, parents who opt for a program that teaches ASL may be much more likely to tap into a world of benefits that reach beyond the emergence of speech. Signing Time teaches real American Sign Language (ASL) signs. There is a very important reason for this! Knowing ASL gives you a connection to a real community out there in the world – the millions of users of ASL who are either Deaf, hard of hearing, interpreters, educators, and so forth. It’s like learning Spanish – real language for real use with real people.

I guess my point is: You don’t need science to prove that teaching your child some made up language will not benefit them anywhere else in life.

Now on to another thought: The author makes reference to a paper published in 2005 by the Universities of Ottawa and Waterloo entitled “Teaching Gestural Signs to Infants to Advance Child Development: A Review of the Evidence.” The results, they found, were somewhat inconsistent. This is no surprise to me, because the various methods out there are inconsistent. And again, referencing my earlier point… the scientific benefits are great and all but we don’t need science to prove that communication with sign language works. From some other information contained in the report, the author makes the following conclusion:

“In other words, training babies to communicate using signs may disrupt important routes and patterns of development for other skills and processes besides language. Humans are not, after all, designed to be on a fast-track singular path to speech.”

It sounds to me like they are assuming parents who sign don’t also talk to their children. I don’t understand the reasoning here, unless parents are being completely overboard and pushing sign language (or anything else for that matter), which I hope is not the case. As a parent, my approach is that learning sign language and watching Signing Time is a fun family activity and a way to connect in a new way. I think the majority of Signing Time fans and customers – at least those I’ve talked to – share this view. This is not a race to see who can talk first. It’s about opening up opportunities for communication: pre-verbal babies, deaf and hearing, non-verbal children, and so on.

It was only a few decades ago that many members of the scientific community viewed the human brain as a ‘blank slate’ – just empty until something was put into it. We now know that this is not the case. If sign language is a tool that can help maximize your ability to bond and connect with your child long before they can tell you with verbal sounds what they are seeing, thinking, and feeling, that can only be a good thing. For some children who don’t have the ability to speak (because of other challenges), it may be the ONLY way to communicate. Isn’t that a benefit that could be measured over time?

My bottom line is this: I have no interest in my son breaking any world records for anything, being the first to do this or that, or ranking magically higher on his IQ test. If he does, that’s great, but it’s not anything I can absolutely attribute to signing any more than broccoli in his diet. All I know is that the most precious moments of my life have been those moments in his infancy where he communicated his thoughts or needs to me with a sign. That’s all the proof I need to know that this works.