Teaching Baby Sign Language Is Not What You Think It Is

Babies & Toddlers

Teaching babies sign language has been proven by research to have many benefits for babies and young toddlers, including:

  • The development of both language and cognitive skills
  • Increased self-confidence and ability to communicate
  • Increased IQ and memory-retention

An eight-year-long research study done by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn in the UK showed that:

  • At 36 months, on average, babies who were taught signing were talking like 47-month-olds, putting them almost a full year ahead of their average age-mates.
  • Eight-year-olds who had been signing as babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ than their non-signing peers.

So, surprisingly, signing babies not only learned to talk earlier and better than non-signing babies, they were also intellectually outperforming their peers.

Thanks to research like the above, and many others like American research Dr Marilyn Daniels, there are countless businesses selling baby sign classes and learning materials on the Internet, each one claiming to be the original or best baby sign language course. 

There are even those who say that the official national sign language (e.g. AUSLAN in Australian, NZLAN in NZ, and BSL in the UK) is what the baby sign language is based on.

HOWEVER

Being the research nerd that I am, I actually read through the published scholar paper by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn, and discovered that nowhere in the paper does it state that the sign language taught to the babies were BSL (British Sign Language), or any official sign language for that matter. 

While it's true that Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn did instruct parents with a set of sign languages (which were then to be taught to their babies), during each stage of assessment throughout the eight-year period, they accepted variations of the sign language especially when modified or developed spontaneously by the babies themselves.

This is a table from their published findings, and in every instance, the signs were created by the babies/toddlers (noted by their initials):

What does this mean then?

1) Baby sign language does not have to be structured

First and foremost, the reason why babies using signing has tremendous benefits is that it involves them using their hands, body and facial expressions to communicate and this stimulates the visual-spatial part of their brain. This is the same part of the brain that we use to learn to read.

In their research paper, Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn make constant reference to "symbolic gesture", instead of "sign language". This indicates that it is the motion of making gestures that is important, rather than the precision and accuracy of the signing.

2) You can do it yourself

As parents, most of us are already hard-pressed for time and money. Teaching baby to sign is definitely a great initiative to consider, but its benefits can easily be attained at home without forking out a fortune. 

Subconsciously, many of us do talk with our hands, for example waving "bye-bye" is one of the first things babies learn, and it IS actually a sign language! We can just as easily incorporate other gestures into our daily conversations with our babies. Be creative and have fun!

If you're short on creativity, national sign languages like AUSLAN are great starting points. Here's an Australian mum sharing some of the common AUSLAN-inspired signs she taught her deaf son when he was a baby. 

3) Follow baby's lead

If you observe closely and notice baby developing her own gestures for certain words, go with the flow and use it! To further reinforce it, attach a meaning to it and say it out loud when you repeat the gesture your baby, for example, "Would you like to go out? (Followed by the gesture)"

 

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