Baby sign language is the use of manual signing allowing infants and toddlers to communicate emotions, desires, and objects prior to spoken language development. With guidance and encouragement signing develops from a natural stage in infants development known as gesture. These gestures are taught in conjunction with speech to hearing children, and are not the same as a sign language. Some common benefits that have been found through the use of baby sign programs include an increased parent-child bond and communication, decreased frustration, and improved self-esteem for both the parent and child. Furthermore, along with positive results, researchers have found that baby sign neither benefits nor harms the language development of infants. Promotional products and ease of information access have increased the attention that baby sign receives, making it pertinent that caregivers become educated before making the decision to use baby sign.
Baby sign involves enhanced gestures and altered signs that infants are taught in conjunction with spoken words with the intention of creating richer parent-child communication. The main reason that parents use baby sign is with hope that it will reduce the frustration involved in trying to interpret their pre-verbal child's needs. It can be considered a useful method of communication in the early developmental stages since speech production follows children's ability to express themselves through bodily movement.
Baby sign is distinct from sign language. Baby sign is used by hearing parents with hearing children to improve communication. Sign languages, including ASL, BSL, ISL and others, are natural languages, typically used in the Deaf community. Sign languages maintain their own grammar, and sentence structure. Because sign languages are as complex to learn as any spoken language, simplified signs are often used with infants in baby sign. Teaching baby signs allows for greater flexibility in the form of sign and does not require the parent to learn the grammar of a sign language. Baby signs are usually gestures or signs taken from the sign language community and modified to make them easier for an infant to form.
It is common for the difference between symbolic gestures and baby signs to be mistaken. Symbolic gestures are a form of communication that children adopt before they develop the ability to produce spoken language. This includes pointing to what they want or using a hand motion in conjunction with a word which allows greater communication for infants. Infants from about six months of age can begin to learn the basic signs, which cover such objects and concepts as “thirsty,” “milk,” “water,” “hungry,” “sleepy,” “pacifier,” “more,” “hot,” “cold,” “play,” “bath,” and “teddy bear.” Typically, developing children will produce their first gestures between the ages of 9 and 12 months without any prompting or assistance from a caregiver. Infants learn how to use their body language, eye gaze, and hand gestures as a way to attract attention and communicate. Once children gain some language production, they will couple language with gesture to further communicate. Gesture remains present in all individuals at any age which is a distinguishing factor from baby sign.
Pros and Cons
Baby sign promotes communication before a child is able to verbally communicate with others. Since gestures are part of normal speech, teaching baby sign allows infants to learn an aspect of communication that is used with language. It is not, however designed to replace language. Prior to any teaching of signs by adults, children will gesture while making babbling sounds or without babbling. They will not however, during infancy, babble without making a gesture. This demonstrates that infants are able to learn gestures before mastering verbal skills. Therefore, those who learn these simplified signs may enhance their cognitive development by gaining language skills through both visual and auditory modes.
Why It May Be Neither Beneficial Nor Harmful
Researchers have suggested the possibility of parents and experimenters being overly liberal in attributing sign or word status to early attempts at communication by children. Puccini and Liszkowski found that when infants associate labels with objects, they use verbal cues more frequently than gestures to make these associations. The process of further facilitating gesturing with baby signs is suggested to possibly cause interference toward children's mapping of these words. This may be a result of infants lacking enough attention to take in these two types of information and process it at the same time. It is suggested that these labels, and further through the facilitation of baby sign, that it is unlikely that baby sign is facilitating speech development in infants.
Learning Baby Sign
There are numerous concepts to keep in mind when encouraging baby sign. Caregivers should ensure that they have their infant's attention, maintain consistency with what sign is used and how it is used in relation to an item, repeat signs often, encourage the infant, and be alert to recognize when the infant is signing back.
When it comes to infants who have not yet acquired language abilities, signs are an easy and readily accessible form of communication. Prior to infants learning specific signs or developing language skills, they acquire the spontaneous use of gesture. An infant’s first gesture may appear between 9–12 months of age, often classified as pointing. Gesturing gradually increases as infants connect pointing to word meaning, making a gesture-plus-word combination that will evolve into a two word combination. It is thought that gestures may be easier for infants to remember than a name alone since a gesture is representative of what the child can picture happening, when thinking about the item.
To determine how infant communication is influenced by gesture and speech, Iverson and Goldin-Meadow conducted a study. Infants in the study used eye gaze, body position, and vocalization to attract and direct their target audience's attention, while gesturing to items. Results looked to see if the gestures that children use are related to the word they say while doing the gesture. Iverson and Goldin-Meadow found that infants gesture for items that they did not have the ability to express with words. When words were produced by the child, they typically were ones that the child had already been gesturing for. This shows that gesture is directly linked to the words that children will produce.
Source: Baby Sign Language