Thursday, April 9, 2009

It's not too late to start baby signing

I read a cool post at (you can click on the preview image at right to go to their site) that reminded me of an important truth about baby signing: "It's not too late."

In the article, Whitney debunks the advice that you must start signing with your baby consistently at 8 months or so:

"Rookie Moms Unpopular Opinion #49: You don’t have to start signing months in advance to get your baby to catch on.

"If you show her the sign, right when she needs it, a few times over a couple of days, she may try it out herself. I have heard so many parents say that they 'messed up' in someway and didn’t teach their baby the signs, and I don’t mean to sound like a crazy hippie/signing evangelist, BUT, if your baby is still not using a lot of words, why not try signing for a few days starting now? I’m guessing most one-year olds will catch on to the 'more' pretty quick if you do a little Pavlov’s dog-style experiment with them."

I also will try not to sound like a crazy hippie/signing evangelist (though I might be both of those things) by saying that you might actually get more satisfaction out of teaching a toddler to sign rather than a baby. By that I mean — you're more likely to get pretty instant gratification.

While we started signing with Mikko round about four months old (though not super consistently), it wasn't until around 11 months old that he first signed back to us. That's a long spell of signing into a vacuum.

But just recently, his sign vocabulary has exploded. I know that we have been signing with him consistently since 11 months old now, and that's 11 months of signing under his belt, but I've noticed a big difference in his acquisition of signs in just the past few days, and I attribute a lot of that to his simply being older. Now we can show him a sign once, and he'll start signing it back. He gets it — signs label something that he wants to have a word for. So he learns them more quickly. I think that's the big bridge to cross — and if your child has already crossed that linguistic bridge (understanding that objects and verbs and so forth have names), then signing will probably be an easy-peasy addition.

The Bilingual Edge — Kendall King and Alison MackeyI just want to point something out as I preach at you about signing. I was reading The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language, which in general I think is a really helpful and positive book for raising your child to speak a second language. However, I was a little offended by the authors' dismissiveness toward baby sign language as, I don't know, a sort of bastardization of bilingual learning. They make the point, and I fully understand and agree with this, that baby sign does not fluent American Sign Language make. No toddler learning a handful of discrete signs is going to be able to converse easily with someone from the Deaf community. There's no grammar, no cultural backing — yes, I get it. But the book went further and pointed out that the studies about signing making babies smarter were perhaps bogus, since (maybe) smarter parents tend to do baby sign in the first place.

Here are a couple of the quotes that got under my skin:

"ASL is a cherished and rich linguistic and cultural resource for the Deaf community (and ironically, one that has long been discriminated against and treated as less than a full language by the same hearing majority who now embrace sign language for use with their babies)."

Is it just me, or does this imply that we're mocking the Deaf community by using baby sign? I would never presume to understand what it means to be Deaf, and I have personally done what I can to study Deaf culture and history and learn some true ASL, besides adopting legitimate ASL signs for my baby signing.

Here's what a sidebar says about a 2003 analysis of baby sign research studies (I believe it might be the same as this one from 2005), which the analysis criticized for poor methodology and inflated conclusions:

"[Johnston et al.] noted that 'parents can be stressed by the challenges of meeting demands of work, caring for a young child, and other family and personal obligations, and experience guilt if they feel they are not doing everything recommended by infancy specialists and the infancy industry.' The researchers recommended that parents consider their own situations before deciding whether to use baby signs and perhaps consider skipping it altogether. As they note, there are important developments that are taking place before infants begin to speak... Adding an additional task at this important time—especially one with no proven benefits—is not essential..."

Overall, I just got the impression that any parent reading that section would think — well, that's that then, baby signing is stupid and pointless.

So I just want to say a couple things about signing with your baby:

     • First of all, I didn't start it because I wanted Mikko's IQ to rise a few points. Who cares! I did it because I want to communicate with my baby, and I really appreciate knowing what he's thinking and feeling (he's just learned the signs for "sad" and "cry," for instance) since he has so few verbal skills right now.

     • Secondly, I don't at all think baby signing is necessary. Don't feel guilty or regretful if you didn't get around to signing with your baby. Yes, it's a fad. No, you shouldn't feel bad about not jumping on the bandwagon. It's fine. If your baby is an early talker, you really don't need it anyway. Frankly, I think it's fun. But if you don't, don't torture yourself.

So, now that I've gotten those caveats out of the way, I just want to encourage anyone who thinks it might be fun to give it a try, even if your baby's 2 years old, or 3, or 13. Just because learning some sign vocabulary doesn't make your baby bilingual doesn't mean that it might not be a springboard to future interest in learning ASL. And, in the meantime, you'll have another (fun!) language you can use to communicate.

So get signing! It's never too late to start!

Here are a few to get you started, as taught by a cute baby and talented mama:


Susana la Banana said...

That quote about how the babies had so much else going on that it would be a bad idea to introduce *sigh* YET ANOTHER THING FOR BABIES TO LEARN? That irritated me. Babies are surrounded by all kinds of things that they can choose to learn or not's not going to overly stress them out if you show them another way to communicate with you. It just seems like whoever wrote that was talking at rich elitists who sign to get their kids' IQs up and who would therefore be forcing their kids into it, which WOULD be stressful...but give me a break! I certainly HOPE that's not the way it is for the majority of parents who do use signing!

Lauren Wayne said...

Ha ha -- I have this image now of a baby saying, "Ouch, I pulled my brain!" Thank you for your very reasonable comment. Especially considering that sign language has been used successfully with babies with Down Syndrome and other conditions where it would be difficult for them to communicate verbally, obviously signing itself is not burdensome (unless the elitist parents make it so! :). It was strange to see such a quote in a book on raising bilingual children, when one of the myths against teaching children another language is that it will just overwhelm and confuse them. Apparently we don't give enough credit to our brains!

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