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Baby Sign – I’m sure we all have a lot to say

I’m sure I’m not the only parent who has dragged their exhausted asses out the house to a variety of parent and baby classes. From music to massage, swimming to baby yoga and everything in between. There are a huge variety of classes available, which is fantastic. From personal experience some are better than others. Sometimes this is only defined by the type of biscuit on offer and how good a cuppa you get.

I will not bore you with a review of every class I’ve attended. However today let’s chat about baby sign, because after all babies have a lot to say. There are a variety of different opinions on the point of baby sign and whether it is worth the time. I was intrigued and thought that anything that might help me learn how to understand this tiny human was going to be of benefit. So I joined the waiting list. The really long waiting list….

By the time we started Oat was about five and a half months and I’d somehow succeeded along the way in working out what she needed/wanted – most of the time. I was therefore a bit sceptical about the class. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The class was fun, engaging and fast paced. I’ve loved learning new songs to sing, and the signs to go with them. There’s time for music, reading, free play and a good hot drink and a biscuit. The other parents at the first group I attended were warm and welcoming, and I very quickly decided that regardless of the signing aspect, it was just an enjoyable fun class and worth leaving the house for.

Given I’d coughed up the dough to attend I thought I’d better try to integrate the signs into day to day life. So moment of truth…does Oat sign…? Yes she does – several signs, and they are growing week by week.

Do I have a child genius at 1 year old? Of course I do!!! (JOKES!!!). But seriously surely there is something in this baby sign? Or is this just normal development that I have influenced in a certain way?

So I have decided to ask an expert in the field for their opinion.

Dr Emily Nordmann, (Lecturer) has a background in the psychology of language and teaches a final year University course on sign language, including what the evidence says about baby signing. I’ve invited Emily to give her professional opinion on baby sign.

Emily, why do people advocate baby signing?

Aside from it being cute, there are a lot of claims made about baby signing, from boosting your child’s general cognitive development, to earlier language acquisition, to reducing frustration.

What are the main reasons for this?

1) Manual communication is easier than verbal communication – that is, young babies can control their hands earlier and easier than they can control their vocal cords so they can produce their first signs earlier than their first words.

2) Signed languages are often more iconic (the signs look like the thing they’re referring to, e.g., the British Sign Language sign for cat mimics the whiskers of cat). Children find it easier to learn the relationship between the sign and the thing it refers to than they do for spoken languages which are argued to be arbitrary. There’s nothing about the sounds that make up the spoken word cat that relate to the small, furry animal.

3) One of the things we have to learn as infants is what’s called the symbolic function of language. We have to learn, for example, that things have names and that these weird sounds we make are actually standardised symbols that refer to things. Because of the first and second points, children learning to sign can learn this basic function of language earlier than they can with a spoken language.

4) By taking part in a baby signing class there will be a lot of sustained interaction between the parent and child as you manipulate their hands and show them what the sign is referring to, which is also known as joint attention. Joint attention is really important for language acquisition. The ability to follow eye gaze so that you can understand what another person is looking at and talking about massively impacts your ability to acquire language so any extra time spent in activities that promote joint attention is good news for language development.

Well this sounds all very positive? Does research back this up?

There are a few studies that have found that children taking part in baby signing classes show earlier spoken language acquisition.

I feel a “but” coming on?

Yes – unfortunately the studies that show a positive effect of baby signing have a lot of issues that mean we can’t accept their findings.

Some of the studies that found a positive effect used children who had deaf parents and were learning a full sign language such as American Sign Language or British Sign Language, i.e., they were bilingual. There are well-established benefits of being bilingual, but baby signing is not bilingualism.

Why is that? Surely signing is signing?

By going to baby signing classes your child isn’t learning a full sign language, they’re just learning simple signs. In many cases the signs that are taught in baby signing programmes aren’t the same signs that are actually used in e.g., British Sign Language).

What about children learning a full signed language from birth? Do they speak any earlier?

No they don’t – but there is evidence to show that the first signs occur slightly earlier than first words (again, because it’s easier to control your hands) but this advantage doesn’t persist into later developmental stages, i.e., they don’t produce two or three-word utterances any faster than children learning a spoken language.

What are the other issues with the studies?

There were problems with the reporting of the results and comparing groups correctly. For example one study that compared three groups; a group doing baby sign, a group doing nothing and group who followed a spoken language programme similar to baby sign, found that the baby signing group did better than the children who did nothing. This was based on tests of their language development. However, they did not report the results from comparing the children in the spoken group and the signing group. This is a problem because it means it’s likely that there was no difference between these groups and that the benefit came from the extra joint attention – regardless of whether it was spoken or sign language the groups were doing.

Yikes. That’s clearly not good practice. Anything else?

The studies that found positive effects of baby signing tend to rely upon parental self-reports, rather than filming the children and getting an independent rater to assess their language and gesture use. A lot of the tales of how amazing baby signing is are anecdotes from parents. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking your child is a genius but unfortunately when it comes to assessing whether something actually works, you can’t rely on this type of data; you need something more objective.

Are there any studies that we can rely on?

A study conducted in 2013 that tried to address all of these problems found that there was no difference in tests of language comprehension or production, or general cognitive ability between spoken and sign training groups. They did find that mothers who gestured with their child seem to view their child as more independent and capable and this may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which if the parent thinks the child is more capable, they do actually become more capable.

This is really interesting – is there anything else to consider?

One final issue with baby signing is cultural appropriation. Baby signing programmes are often run by hearing people who have no knowledge of real sign languages. Historically, deaf children were denied access to sign language, told to sit on their hands in school, and people argued that learning a sign language would impair their ability to learn a spoken language (the opposite is in fact true). It’s not surprising that many in the Deaf community take a dim view of baby signing when they read that sign language can boost the intelligence of hearing children when deaf children who needed it were told the opposite.

Given I’ve told you that Oat signs, and has been for a few months, have I wasted my money and should people avoid Baby Signing classes?

No, I don’t think that’s the case, I just wish that people were more aware of what it is they’re paying for and where the benefit is coming from. Baby Signing classes are fun and they promote joint-attention and if your child does pick up a few gestures then you may view them as more independent and all of these are good things. Don’t think that it’s going to increase your child’s IQ or boost later language development and try to be aware of the differences between Baby Signing and actual signed languages before you claim that your child can sign. It does confuse me when Baby Signing providers distort the evidence and exaggerate the benefits – the truth is good enough!

Wow that’s a lot of food for thought! Thanks Emily!

If you would like to read a full review you can view the following article. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall so if you don’t have access you can e-mail Emily at emily.nordmann@abdn.ac.uk and she will send you a copy.

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0142723705050340 .

And the moral of the story? As I’ve said, I’ve loved attending the classes for the reasons I listed above. I would recommend them to parents looking to learn new songs, enjoy structured play, meet new people and have a yummy biscuit. However, being clear about what my daughter is actually learning and how, is really important to me. I think everyone should fully understand every class they sign up for and what and who they’re handing they’re money over to.

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13 thoughts on “Baby Sign – I’m sure we all have a lot to say

  1. That’s an interesting read, thanks. My son is almost 3 and doesn’t have lots of words, he babbles lots but not lots of actual words. I often wonder if baby sign would have helped him express himself/make him less frustrated #fortheloveofblog

  2. Ilove the way you have constructed this post, it makes it really easy to follow, I’ve heard a lot about baby signing, I’m sure it wasn’t around when mine were tiny but it looks worth considering with little ones now. #MarvMondays

  3. A wonderful read. I took my daughter to Sing and Sign class from about 5 months until 11 months (I had to go back to work so couldn’t keep attending). I was never under the illusion that it was full sign language so it’s upsetting some parents are being given that impression incorrectly. I also had no particular belief it would make my daughter smarter. I went for the social aspect, the songs and with the hope it would give her a way of communicating before her speech developed. And she did sign for a while, also supplementing her new speech. It helped her feel calmer that she could ask for milk I think. She was a milk fiend! To this day (she’s 2 now) she’ll still often sign please whilst saying it! I would definitely recommend baby signing…but with all the considerations Emily mentions. #MarvMondays
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  4. Ah this is really interesting! I was desperate to do baby sign with my little one, but alas – it was too expensive and we were very short of money at the time. However, I did do a few signs with her anyway and she certainly was able to use these in the right context long before she was able to say the actual word. I think anything that helps us understand what our children want quicker is a good thing (so much of parenting young ones is guess-work) so I don’t really mind if it helps them long-term or not. I really enjoyed reading about this – thanks! #DreamTeam
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  5. I found that really fascinating to read. I can see that there must be some great benefits to giving our little ones the capability to show us what they want in a clear way, earlier than they might be able to tell us. It’s interesting to see that the main developmental benefits come from the joint attention though. Brilliantly informative post. Thanks for sharing with #DreamTeam x
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  6. I have never had any interest in teaching my babies to sign. I guess I just always picked up on their cues and didn’t feel the need to have them “talk” to me at such a young age. It’s definitely interesting, but meh, just not for me. #marvmondays

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