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Title: Re: 16.1769, Lang Acquisition: Baby Signing
Submitter: Derek Irwin
Description: 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 hackles.

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: 1-23.

William C. Stokoe, (2000) "Gesture to Sign (language)", In McNeill, David, ed. Language and Gesture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 388-399.
Date Posted: 06-Jun-2005
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
LL Issue: 16.1779
Posted: 06-Jun-2005

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