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LINGUIST List 16.1779

Mon Jun 06 2005

Disc: Re: Lang Acquisition: Baby Signing

Editor for this issue: Michael Appleby <michaellinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Derek Irwin, Re: Lang Acquisition: Baby Signing
        2.    Anthea Fraser Gupta, Re: Disc: New: Lang Acquisition: Baby Signing
        3.    Will Salmon, Re: Media: BBC: Baby Signing/Mark Jones

Message 1: Re: Lang Acquisition: Baby Signing
Date: 06-Jun-2005
From: Derek Irwin <irwindyorku.ca>
Subject: Re: Lang Acquisition: Baby Signing

Dear Mark and all,

I have not been able to see the BBC special, but on this side of the
pond Baby Signs are also quite a phenomenon. There are many different
points of view on the nature of Baby Signs in infant development, but
none of them so far (that I have seen, and I would appreciate hearing
about it if anyone has seen such a study) has actually expressed a
concern over the entire concept being detrimental to language
development. The "business" (and it is big business) of Baby Signs
has a number of misconceptions tied to it -- spurious claims of
raising potential IQs of children being lead among these -- but in my
experience with a number of children who have used sign-based
communication systems, it enables them to communicate certain
functions earlier than an insistence on purely verbal language would:
Meier and Newport (1990) argue that "instead of describing sign
language as 'advantaged', we would be more accurate if we labeled
speech as 'disadvantaged'," but of course this may raise a number of

Part of the debate is in what we can label a "sign": must it be
clearly referential, or can it be largely gestural, though used
functionally? Folven and Bonvillian (1991) found that 1) Children do
learn signs earlier than verbal language, 2) Referential signs come at
about the same time as speech (13 months or so) and 3) Sign
combinations come at the same time whether verbal or gestural.

So, the question then becomes whether "Baby Sign" is a sort of ASL
protolanguage, whether it is developed from gesture, or whether it is
both: perhaps learning signs delays the development of the adult
language somewhat, but Griffith (1985) pointed out that this is more
in the sense of a learned bilingualism, as long as the children are
also being presented with spoken speech simultaneously, although this
is from an ASL perspective, while most Baby Signs are only loosely
based on "official" systems (it's hard to copyright your system if it
is not specific enough, perhaps; I'm not familiar with the actual
business of this, but most of the systems insist that they are only
taught by "accredited" teachers who pay a fair amount for this
privilege.) Recent work by Stokoe (2000) theorizes an evolutionary
link between gesture and Sign languages, which seems to indicate that
the differences are not as great as we might like to see them.

On a personal note, both of my children used a home-made version of
Baby Sign to communicate. My daughter abandoned it almost
immediately, since her verbal development was very rapid and she no
longer had need of it. My son is currently transitioning between sign
and speech, and in fact uses quite a number of sign/speech
combinations. Of course, it is impossible to say whether his verbal
language has been impeded in this process, but his sign inventory is
up around 50, while his non-sign language use is equivalent to other
infants his age, giving him a much greater capacity for communication
overall. Further, in reality all children will use sign to
communicate: it is only in the codifying, teaching and encouragement
of certain signs that these systems differ from what parents would
otherwise be doing naturally.

So while Baby Sign is certainly faddy, it seems to operate well enough
in adding a bit to domestic harmony: if an infant can sign for
something instead of screaming unintelligibly, it makes for a better
home environment and relationship. Will it make them smarter? I will
quote the mother of an infant who used a system of nearly 100 signs
prior to speaking: "Laura still slams her head in the closet. No
amount of Baby Signs will help that."

Derek Irwin
York University


Folven, Raymond J. and Bonvillian, John D. (1991) "The Transition from
Nonreferential to Referential Language in Children Acquiring American
Sign Language." Developmental Psychology 27.5: 806-816.

Griffith, P.L. (1985) "Mode Switching and Mode Finding in a Hearing
Child of Deaf Parents." Sign Language Studies 78: 195-222.

Meier, Richard and Newport, Elissa. (1990) "Out of the Hands of Babes:
On a possible sign advantage in language acquisition." Language 66.1:

William C. Stokoe, (2000) "Gesture to Sign (language)", In McNeill,
David, ed. Language and Gesture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 388-399.

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition

Language Family(ies): Sign Language
Message 2: Re: Disc: New: Lang Acquisition: Baby Signing
Date: 06-Jun-2005
From: Anthea Fraser Gupta <A.F.Guptaleeds.ac.uk>
Subject: Re: Disc: New: Lang Acquisition: Baby Signing

The use of more than one language most certainly will NOT cause delay
in language learning in general, or in the development of an oral
language in addition to the sign language. It's long been known that
childhood bilingualism isn't damaging in any way, and it is possible
that children who are bilingual from birth may be at a cognitive

However, I am a bit worried about the motivations for what seems like
a type of hothousing. Children who learn sign languages as native
languages produce their first identifiable words two or three months
earlier than children who learn oral languages as native languages.
The promotion of signed languages for hearing babies in hearing
families is motivated by a notion that early language is advantageous.

There is no evidence, however, that doing things (first word, walking,
eating solids, toilet training, literacy) early confers any advantage
in later life. In the UK last week, we had politicians extolling the
virtue of a particular system of phonics to be used EXCLUSIVELY in the
teaching of reading, on the grounds (in part) that children taught by
this system are on everage ahead of those taught by other means at the
end of the first year of school. At the end of the first year of
school in the UK children are still aged 5 years. At this age children
in many other parts of the world have not even started school.
Norwegian children learn to read on average much later than British
children, for cultural reasons. But do we see hordes of illiterate
Norwegians and startlingly brilliant Brits? No -- it's what you do
when you are an adult that matters, and early starting confers no

On the other hand, if parents enjoy teaching sign languages to their
children, it won't do any harm. And the more people who know the
local sign languages, the better it will be for Deaf people and the
better attitudes to Deaf people might be. It's also good to teach
music, swimming, nature observation, ball games, tree-climbing, clay
skills.... But hothousing I don't like. Children need more time to
explore things in their own way and at their own pace, and less


* * * * *
Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
NB: Reply to a.f.guptaleeds.ac.uk
* * * * *

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition

Language Family(ies): Sign Language

Message 3: Re: Media: BBC: Baby Signing/Mark Jones
Date: 06-Jun-2005
From: Will Salmon <william.salmonyale.edu>
Subject: Re: Media: BBC: Baby Signing/Mark Jones

My wife picked up a copy of *Baby Signs* (Susan Goodwyn) several
months ago and began teaching some signs to our then-13-month old.
Simple stuff like signs for milk, Cheerios, various animal names, etc.
My son is now 20 months and has been putting together two-word strings
like 'my daddy', 'not snowing' for at least a couple of months, with
more every day. So, I don't know that his early baby-sign education
has delayed his speech development.

Like Mark Jones though, my initial impression of baby signing was that
it was a bit faddy, if entertaining. However, I am not a language
acquisitionist and don't purport to make any claims one way or the
other about effects of baby signing on speech development. I just
thought it worth mentioning that it doesn't seem to have had any
adverse affects on my son's verbal speech development.

Will Salmon

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition

Language Family(ies): Sign Language

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