A Jumpstart on Education or an Insult to the Deaf?
Though I am taking a beginning course in American Sign
Language (ASL), it is not the first time I have learned
signs. In elementary school my sister had a hard of hearing
friend who taught her and I some signs and I was very
intrigued. Later, in my twenties, when I was planning for
the arrival of my first child, I heard about baby signing. I
thought it would be amazing to be able to communicate with
my daughter as early as possible. I taught her many signs
and we both benefitted from the increased communication and
understanding we shared.
Baby signing has become increasingly popular in the United
States and is beginning to be used in Canada (Savory, 2004).
There are several models of baby signs, from those based on
ASL to simple natural gestures. Two popular programs parents
use are Baby Signs and Sign with Your Baby (Dickinson,
2000). Baby Signs borrows some simple gestures from ASL and
uses natural gestures created by children for the rest. Each
sign used is related to the object or concept it identifies,
such as flicking the tongue in and out for “frog” (Acredelo
& Goodwyn, 2002). Sign with Your Baby uses genuine ASL
(Dickinson, 2000). Programs are offered in book, dvd,
flashcard, and classroom form.
Why do parents teach hearing babies ASL? Many reasons have
been reported including reducing frustration from lack of
ability to communicate, accelerated learning of spoken
language, increasing parent-child interaction, academic
advantage, creating deeper family bonds, calming sibling
rivalry, and hopes to improve deaf-hearing relations (Wicklin;
Pizer, Walters, & Meier, 2007). The reason reported most is
the increase of communication and reduction in frustration (Pizer,
Walters, & Meier, 2007). Most of the tantrums of the famed
“terrible twos” are the result of frustration from inability
of a child to communicate his or her needs or desires
(Greene, 1999). When a child is able to express thoughts and
feelings through sign, his parents are better able to meet
his needs and his physical, mental, and emotional health is
enriched (Pizer, Walters, & Meier, 2007). Parents who choose
baby signing to foster communication often believe that good
parenting involves adapting the environment to the child,
rather than expecting the child to adapt to an
adult-centered environment (Pizer, Walters, & Meier, 2007).
As the popularity of baby signing has grown, many parents
have expressed fear that their children would not learn to
speak as easily if they could communicate with signs. Fears
such as this were the basis of decades of emphasis on
oralism in education of deaf children (Pizer, Walters, &
Meier, 2007). In fact, it has been shown to be the opposite.
Because ASL is a language, learning it as an infant
stimulates connections between neurons in the area of the
brain related to language, giving children a base to build
on with spoken language. Studies have also shown that
learning multiple languages in early childhood helps
children learn new languages later in life. Some supporters
of ASL believe that promoting use of sign-language as a
stepping-stone to oral language further feeds society’s
tendency not to view ASL as a true language (Pizer, Walters,
& Meier, 2007).
When a parent sets out to teach ASL to her child, she is
planning for lots of interaction. Teaching a child ASL takes
time and parents need to be careful to use the sign every
time they refer to the object and acknowledge the child when
he uses the sign (Pizer, Walters, & Meier, 2007)). Some ways
of acknowledging are to give the object to the child, or
say, “Yes, that is a ___.” It is well known that children
benefit exponentially from increased one-on-one interaction.
In this increasingly competitive society, there are parents
who strive to give their children an academic advantage, and
baby signing has been shown to do just that. In a
longitudinal study of signing and non-signing toddlers,
those who signed scored higher on repeated tests of verbal
ability. When tested again at age 8, the signing children
still scored higher and had an average IQ score 12 points
higher than those who did not sign as babies (Acredelo &
Goodwyn, 2002; Pizer, Walters, & Meier 2007). Other studies
have found children who sign as toddlers score higher on
their SATs (Good Morning America, 2005). Some argue that
this apparent intelligence advantage may not be related to
signing specifically, but to the type of interactions
parents who are willing to take the time to teach a child
sign would have with their child (Savory, 2004).
When an infant can communicate with her parents and have
them understand and respond, trust is developed (Pizer,
Walters, & Meier 2007). The children become empowered and
enjoy talking about the world around them. They may make the
sign for “airplane” when they see one fly by or the sign for
“cat” when one walks into the yard. These times are a great
opportunity for bonding between parent and child: the parent
acknowledging the infant’s signing fosters pride and
self-esteem in the child and for most parents these
interactions are equally special (Savory, 2004). In families
with multiple children, involving the older siblings in
teaching the infant ASL can foster stronger sibling bonds
and alleviate some sibling rivalry (Greene, 1999). It can be
fun for the older sibling to look for the babies signals and
interpret them, making a game out of meeting their sibling’s
According to Pizer, Walters, and Meier (2007), some ASL
supporters have voiced hopes that mainstream use of ASL with
babies in hearing families will foster more understanding
and interaction between the hearing and non-hearing
communities. Many parents do report having a greater
interest in learning about the deaf community when teaching
their babies sign language. As mentioned before, the common
use of baby signing as a route to verbal language lends
people to view ASL as less than or simpler than spoken
language. This is further reinforced in the common tendency
for families to drop signing as a form of communication as
soon as the child learns to talk. One of the benefits of
using ASL based baby signs is that the baby can communicate
with others outside of the family and can continue to use
the language into adulthood.
I have to admit I was one of those parents who dropped the
signs after my daughter learned to speak. She is now four
years old and I plan to reintroduce ASL into our everyday
lives starting today. Not only will it benefit her to learn
a new language, it will give me a chance to practice my
skills in ASL. And with our newfound signing ability, we can
communicate with others who use ASL, hearing or not. With
this knowledge, my daughter will be more accepting of deaf
or hard of hearing children she comes across as she grows.
She will be able to communicate with them and they with her.
Acredolo, L., Goodwyn, S. (2002). Baby Signs: How to Talk
to Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. New York:
Baby Sign Language. Michigan State University website.
Retrieved April 25, 2008. http://www.msu.edu/~wicklin1/baby_sign.html.
Dickinson, A. (2000, October 16). Time. Vol. 156.
issue 16. pg 93.
Good Morning America. (2005, February 22). Baby Sign
Language May Boost IQ: Researchers Say Signing with Babies
May Boost IQ, Family Relationship. ABC news. Retrieved
April 15, 2008.
Greene Alan. (1999, July 30). Baby Sign Language.
DrGreene.com. Retrieved April 18, 2008. http://www.drgreene.com/21_17.html.
Kramer, E. (2004). From the Hands of Babes: Babies can learn
sign language before they learn to talk, and it may improve
their overall language skills. Psychology Today Vol.
37 issue 6. pg 24.
Motluk, A. (2004, July 17). Babies get hands-on with
language. New Scientist Vol. 183 issue 2456. pg 8.
Pizer, G., Walters, K., Meier, R. (2007). Bringing Up Baby
with Baby Signs: Language Ideologies and Socialization in
Hearing Families. Sign Language Studies Vol. 7 No. 4.
Savory, E. (2004, March 10). Baby Signing. CBC News
online. Retrieved April 25, 2008. http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/babysign/.