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Bilingualism: Bilingual Infants:
A Jumpstart on Education or an Insult to the Deaf?


By Jennifer Riley
May 5, 2008



Bilingual Infants:

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 needs.

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: McGraw-Hill.

Baby Sign Language. Michigan State University website. Retrieved April 25, 2008.

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. Retrieved April 18, 2008.

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. pg 387-430.

Savory, E. (2004, March 10). Baby Signing. CBC News online. Retrieved April 25, 2008.


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