November 2, 2010 Features

About Baby Signing

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Growing interest in signing with typically developing babies has gained unprecedented attention in popular media, particularly on the Internet. YouTube offers 10 categories for baby signing; they range from "baby sign language lessons" to "singing baby signing." In less than two years, "Cute Baby Signing," which includes a series of videos that feature signing with babies in daily activities, has been viewed more than 2 million times.

Other websites are among the abundant sources and products available for signing songs, signing flash cards, signing software, signing DVDs and signing lessons in the United States and abroad—all suggesting a powerful movement directed by and at parents to sign to their babies. Many promote infant signing for improved communication of wants and needs, temperament, vocabulary, and reading. One site even addresses improved toilet training with signing.

Definition 

What, exactly, is baby signing? For the purposes of this exploration, "baby signing" refers to the use of signs from American Sign Language (ASL)—or British Sign Language, Japanese Sign Language, etc.—but with "motherese" modifications: that is, adjusting signing space, signing size, and sign duration or length to emphasize a salient sign and/or word. Parents of typically developing babies should expect their baby's approximations and productions—his or her "baby signs"—to improve over time but lack adult articulatory skill.

Signs that are purposefully modified, such as Simplified Signs (Bonvillian, in press), are intended to promote successful alternative or augmentative communication (AAC) for individuals who are not typically developing and cannot achieve adult-like productions.  John Bonvillian (and student Nikki Kissane) worked several years on the simplification process for Simplified Signs, testing many foreign sign language vocabularies on college students to determine the best choices for their system. This article is not about signs for AAC, although the principles offered here have many relevant applications to AAC sign selections and use.  

Controversy Over Benefits 

Psychologist Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon (2008) reported on the Baby Signing (BS) movement in Great Britain. She described the controversy surrounding the movement as "evoking academic dispute, political and even moral arguments" (p. 300). Some of the debate involves individuals with normal hearing "hijacking" sign language for their own gain. Most of the controversy, however, centers on the lack of empirical evidence that baby signing is actually responsible for advances in language, literacy, and cognition.

One of the most prominent early publications on signing with typically developing babies with normal hearing appeared 25 years ago. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn (1985) reported on Linda's infant daughter's "Symbolic Gesturing in Language Development: A Case Study" in the journal Human Development. Their descriptive research over the next several years provided positive accounts of spontaneous sign-like gestures and use of actual signs in numerous infants with normal hearing (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 1988, 1990; Goodwyn & Acredolo, 1993, 1998).

Signing Research 

In 2000, Acredolo, Goodwyn, and Brown published their first experimental account of sign training (ST) to 32 children and verbal training (VT) to 32 children, comparing longitudinal language learning measures against 39 control children who received no intervention (NC). From the onset of the investigation of these middle-class, university-town babies at 11 months (when no differences were observed across the three randomized groups), through testing periods at 15, 19, and 24 months, the ST children showed statistically higher receptive and expressive language outcomes than the VT and NC children. The signing children also had higher, but statistically insignificant, language scores at 30 and 36 months. The VT parents had been encouraged to focus on labeling or naming objects in their interactions with their babies. The VT parents actually reported a great number of engagement instances (an average of 3.7; s.d. = 2.9) with their babies than the ST parents (an average of 2.9; s.d. = 4.06) in the first six weeks of the study, but gains in the VT babies never exceeded those of the NC control group.             

Canadian researchers Johnson, Durieux-Smith, & and Bloom (2005) conducted a systematic review of literature on sign language that appeared between 1980 and 2003. Their search for evidence of the effectiveness of prelingual signing revealed 1,208 published articles, but only 17 articles met inclusion criteria for full review (i.e., expressive, receptive, social, cognitive, literacy, and parent-child interaction outcome measures). Five reports involved case studies and four involved longitudinal cohort studies. Johnson and colleagues concluded that most of the 17 reports lacked methodological rigor and use of controls and, taken altogether, provided little evidence that prelingual signing is either "beneficial, harmful or harmless" (p. 245) to babies with typical hearing.

Infant signing was addressed in several papers at the July 2009 International MultiModality Conference in France. Doherty-Sneddon (Great Britain), Kiegelmann (Germany), Kirk and Pine (England), and Valloton (United States) each acknowledged the widespread attraction to signing with babies, but cautioned that privileged families' high-performing children were just as likely to show benefit with any gestural intervention. Additionally, monolingual babies were more responsive to signing than bilingual babies, who reduced their talk time when signing was used (Valloton, 2009).

Gesture Research 

Developmental support for early gesture, different from signing that belongs to a formal language and culture, also has yielded a substantial literature over the past 30 years, dating back to the seminal work of Elizabeth Bates and her colleagues (Bates, Benigni, Bretherton, Camaioni, & Volterra, 1979). With few exceptions, the early gesture literature focuses on deictic (e.g., pointing) and emblematic (e.g., using a banana as a telephone) gestures that emerge at or around 9 to 10 months of age, before and during the acquisition of first words (Iverson & Fagan, 2004; Iverson & Thelen, 1999).

Watt, Wetherby, and Shumway (2006), in their five-year investigation (FIRST WORDS Project) of children ages 6–24 months, determined that children's inventories of gestures and consonants at 13–15 months of age correlate highly with their inventories of words at 18–20 months of age. Rowe and Goldin-Meadow (2009) similarly reported that the number of gestures babies used at 14 months of age correlates favorably with vocabulary size at kindergarten. They also reported differences between babies based on the socio-economic status of their families (2009). Babies of lower socio-economic status had a smaller number of gestures and a smaller vocabulary at kindergarten entry than those from families with a higher socio-economic status.

Italian researcher Virginia Volterra and her colleagues (Volterra, Iverson, & Castratero, 2006) reported that enhanced gestural input, even in the form of signs, with typically developing children with normal hearing is effective between 12 and 15 months as a catalyst for representational form and communicative function. They also reported that this catalyst is short-lived, disappearing as children begin to use spoken words and spoken language. 

Research Conclusions 

These two bodies of literature—one on baby signing and one on baby gestures—combined with other research on manual activity in babies, yield several additional converging points:

  • Infant manual activity is visible and malleable in advance of vocal and spoken language activity, and in advance of sign language activity (Petitto & Marentette, 1991; Petitto, 2000). 
  • Infants demonstrate predictable and stable handshapes during the same months of reduplicative babble when they demonstrate predictable and stable consonants (Seal, DePaolis, Koegler, Hudson & Pustinovich, 2009; McCune & Vihman, 2001) and before the onset of first words.
  • Some babies of parents who are deaf and who use American Sign Language exclusively with their babies (hearing or deaf) produce their first signs as early as 8–9 months (Bonvillian, Orlansky, & Novak, 1983; Folven, Bonvillian, & Orlansky, 1985), a time that coincides with predictable and stable handshapes (Seal et al., 2009).

Two additional points are not as evident from the literature but could well be involved in the surge of popular interest and reported advantages from baby signing:

  • Parents who choose to learn signs and encourage their infants to sign are parents who may have already given their babies a genetic advantage for language learning.
  • Parents who use gestures as they interact with their infants (for example, playing Peek-a-Boo, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Pattycake) are parents who may have already given their babies aninteractive advantage for learning language.

Issues Surrounding Baby Signing 

Several issues need to be addressed when speech-language pathologists, audiologists, speech-language-hearing researchers, and early intervention specialists are asked questions about prelingual signing with typically developing babies.

First, hearing parents of children who are deaf rarely master the sign language that their children master (Meyers & Barter, 1992), suggesting that the linguistic complexity of ASL and the other 500 or 600 known sign languages of the world are difficult—as difficult as learning any new spoken language (Kemp, 1998). Encouraging parents to use any other novel spoken language with their babies might be a good thing—but parents are likely to understand that if they don't know another spoken language, there's little value in learning it well enough to use it with their babies.

This same logic should be carefully discussed with parents who think signing with their babies provides a language advantage. Learning 10 to 20 signs from YouTube does not mean that ASL is easy to acquire or that babies who imitate approximations of signs are using sign language. One baby sign website actually states that "signs are easy to learn" because they "mimic" their referent. The vocabulary of ASL is both opaque and transparent (Orlanski & Bonvillian, 1984), so some signs are indeed easier to learn than others, but most are difficult to master at a truly linguistic or conversational level.

Developmentally Appropriate Signs 

Babies of parents who are deaf acquire their signs in stages that move from gross imitation to more refined replication—that is, from baby-sign stages to more adult-like representation (Conlin, Miorus, Mauk, & Meier, 2000; Petito, 2000; Siedlecki & Bonvillian, 1993). Variability is also evident in that some babies acquire articulatory skills for signs earlier than others (Meier, 1991; Meier & Newport, 1990). Offering parents advice on developmentally appropriate signs—those that follow early-to-late "phoneme" (handshape, movement, location) acquisition—is important. Babies are likely to respond with more closely resembled signs when their motor skills enable imitation of the model, and parents are more likely to be motivated to keep at it when one imitated sign is discernibly different from another. At least one YouTube video boasting an infant's expanded sign vocabulary actually shows the infant approximating location and movement of her mother's model, but with little differentiation or accuracy in representing a true sign handshape.

Signs like EAT, DRINK, and MORE with a dominant O-hand and C-hand, are easier to sign at 9 and 10 months old than signs like MOMMY, PLEASE, AND COOKIE.  These latter three signs also have developmentally early handshapes (a 5-hand in MOMMY and PLEASE and a dominant or moving C-hand on the 5-hand in COOKIE). Baby signers in families who are deaf flatten the O-hand before they round the fingers enough to make thumb-fingertip contact. They also reduce the 5-hand of MOMMY to a closed A-hand and lateralize the contact movement to the chin well before they extend their fingers and place a thumb at its central chin contact. The circular movements of PLEASE first look like side-to-side trunk movements and then patting movements on the chest, and the asynchronous and alternating movements of COOKIE look like synchronous clapping long before resembling the adult sign.

Table 1 [PDF] offers 25 signs that are good choices for a first sign lexicon because of their developmental simplicity. At least 10 of these signs are also in the first lexicon of signs of children of ASL-signing families (Conlin, Mirus, Mauk, & Meier, 2000). Signs for animals, foods, people, and clothing are also good, but are likely to result in approximations or "baby signs" when their motor complexity is too advanced.

Errors and Misuse 

Parents who learn signs are also vulnerable to sign errors. Signing flash cards, DVDs, videotapes, and books are only as accurate as the models who demonstrate the signs. Thirty-three years of teaching sign language to college students permits this confident observation: Smart young college students make errors of reduction in their first signs as they simplify complex handshapes and movements. We should expect no more of parents who have not taken a formal sign language class. Many signs demonstrated on YouTube by well-meaning signing mothers are rejected by ASL signers because of their formational complexity reduction and error patterns. The signs in Table 1 [PDF], then, are also better for parents' first signs.

Signs that are developmentally easier also can be misused or overused. I have observed this fact frequently with the sign for "more" in speech-language-hearing clinic settings. "One more" as an adjective of comparative quantity is acquired cognitively late, appearing between 36 and 47 months of age on the Battell Developmental Inventory (Newborg, Stock, & Wnek, 1984). We risk delaying acquisition of its appropriate use when we allow ONE MORE to serve indiscriminately as a noun, adjective, adverb, and action verb. "Do you want more cereal?" or "Do you want one more bite?" works, but accepting MORE as an indiscriminate response to "What do you want?" or as an indiscriminate request for anything or any action promotes its confused use as a catch-all sign.

The sign for AGAIN with fingertips of a dominant C making contact on the nondominant palm, and the sign for ANOTHER, with its A-hand and supinated wrist movement, are included in Table 1 [PDF] and I encourage them for action requests—"Let's do that AGAIN," not "Let's do it MORE," and "You want ANOTHER cracker" is a good contrastive expansion to "You want MORE crackers."

I have also witnessed the sign for FINISH to represent ALL GONE, not ALL DONE. ALL GONE is a complex sign; the C-hand changes to an S-hand as it moves off the back of the nondominant hand in one context, and the dominant 5-hand changes to an O-hand as it moves downward in the nondominant 5- to O-hand in another context. ALL DONE does not always mean ALL GONE.   

Parents who offer baby signs to their infants also should benefit from advice on how to sign to their babies. This how-to variable raises another set of questions that has not been empirically tested. Use of flash cards suggests drill and speed as an instructional method, but that theory is contradicted by what we know of early language intervention (e.g., Owens, 2007). Face-to-face imitative signing also can lead to mirror imitations that may inadvertently delay sign laterality in would-be right-handed babies. Strong right-hand preference for baby signing has also been reported in children with normal hearing who have parents who are deaf (Bonvillian & Richards, 1993) and in children who are deaf who have parents who are hearing (Seal & Bonvillian, 1996).

Signing Suggestions 

Several widely accepted practices used by parents who are deaf with their babies should facilitate novice parent signers' successful signing:

  • Holding baby on the lap with his or her back to the parent's stomach enables adult arms and hands to embrace the baby's arms and hands to form and move signs (perfect for book sharing and toy play).
  • Signing on the baby's body when carrying him/her gives additional tactile information about sign location and movement, and facial information is more easily matched with signs when carrying the baby.
  • Signing while reading to, feeding, bathing, and diapering the baby provides appropriate contextual support for signs that flash cards and DVDs cannot offer. Signing should be interactive, even when a computer or television monitor is used as the source of the sign vocabulary.
  • Signing with voice off is generally discouraged in both the popular media and in the professional literature, but it has the potential to offer a baby (whose oral movements cannot reproduce the spoken word) the sense that his baby signs are cognitively meaningful without sound. Signing with both voice on and voice off may even encourage linguistic flexibility by promoting the idea that concepts are represented in multiple ways. Babies who make their spoken representations understood will ultimately drop signs in favor of the more widely accepted spoken language mode used in their everyday culture. 
  • Encouraging parents to use principles of "motherese" when they sign (emphasizing signs by adjusting their rate, size, duration, and frequency) is important in making them interesting and interactive.
  • Cautioning parents not to refer to their use of signs as a language is also important. Without the morphology, pragmatics, and syntax, signs from ASL are simply signs, not sign language.
  • Likewise, cautioning parents not to accept indiscriminate movements or gross approximations as the long-term acceptable baby sign informs them that motor skills improve over time and should be held to closer approximations.

Baby signing can be fun, instructive and engaging, but its promotion as an avenue to advanced language, literacy, and cognition has very little empirical support. Widespread popular promotion is unprecedented and may come from a skewed population of parents at the high end of the language-cognitive-socioeconomic distribution. Research on baby signing and baby gesture both suggest positive outcomes from manual activity in infancy, but the science needed to detangle parental linguistic and interactive variables from signing variables is lacking.

Regardless of stance on baby signing or enhanced gesturing, professionals should offer parents who choose to sign to their infants developmentally appropriate signs, signing approaches, and cautions that align with what we know about language acquisition. The host of well-intended parents who are teaching baby signing on YouTube, particularly those who are unable to communicate with native ASL-users and those whose efforts involve selling signing classes and products for financial gain, appear to offer much in the way of parental pride and encouragement. Their good intentions, however, do not measure up to the scrutiny of evidence still needed from carefully designed and informed research.           

Brenda Seal, PhD, CCC-SLP, is professor of hearing, speech, and language sciences at Gallaudet University (Washington, D.C.) and professor emeritae of communication sciences and disorders at James Madison University (Harrisonburg, Va.). Contact her at brenda.seal@gallaudet.edu

cite as: Seal, B. (2010, November 02). About Baby Signing. The ASHA Leader.

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