Sign language for babies. Awesome idea or just the latest unnecessary and crazy baby trend? I didn't know either. I have a few friends who have done some sign language with their babies, but I didn't really know much about it and I wasn't convinced it was something that was worth adding to my already long must-remember-to-do-with-baby list.
I was intrigued though, so around six months I started signing "more" and "all done" to Finn at the appropriate times during meals. I didn't do it all the time, and I didn't make a big deal about doing it. I just did the signs while I said those two particular things. Maybe if we had focused on it more, it would have happened sooner, but that didn't make us any less excited when Finn signed "more" for the first time at lunch when he was twelve months old. He had just finished all of the grapes on his tray and wanted more of them... you better believe he got a big pile more! Signing "all done" followed about a week later.
From that point on we started doing the signs with Finn a little bit more frequently. But it wasn't anything that took any extra time. Our fancy method of teaching ASL to Finn is to google for a youtube video of a certain sign that we realize might be a good one for him to learn. We then just do the sign along with saying the word whenever it comes up naturally. There's no studying or sitting down to teach things. We do have this 30-minute signing video that we watch on occasion as well, and Finn is pretty interested in it since it's one of our only exceptions to the almost-no-TV rule. (For what it's worth, I think showing signs in person has been a lot more effective than the video.)
Just like with spoken words, there is a huge motivation factor for Finn that helps him want to learn them. When he does a sign or says a word, we get really excited about it AND he usually gets what he's asking for. It sure beats a high-pitched scream from his high chair followed by "do you want more milk or maybe more cheese? or are you all done? or do you want water?" followed by more screaming. We introduced a new sign here and there just when it occurred to us after Finn did his first sign. At 15 months he can sign the following: "eat", "bird", "elephant", "potty", "milk", "water", "shoes", "ball", "pig", "penguin", "fork", "brush teeth", "O" (we say this for Cheerio's) and "please". (In case you are curious he also says about eight words.) The signs are American Sign Language signs, not a simplified "baby" version, although obviously we use them in a very simple context. Just like with babies and spoken language, Finn's versions are not always perfect. For example, the sign for fork is made by tapping your palm with two fingers. Finn usually taps just one finger. We sign back the correct version but don't spend any time trying to correct him as long as he's close, just like we don't worry that he says "duhs" for "ducks" at this age.
Other than being worried that signing with Finn was going to take up a lot of time, my other main concern was another common one. By giving him this way of communicating, am I going to delay his verbal language development? The answer is no. I think it's really important to address this concern, because it's one that is heard a lot.
If you want the research on it, this page has a great compilation of some relevant studies that have been done on babies learning sign language. The most fascinating one to me is Goodwyn, Acredolo and Brown's "Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development". The authors assigned parents and babies randomly to signing and non-signing groups and followed them for a number years. At 36 months, the signing babies in the study were speaking, on average, the equivalent of non-signing 47 month-olds. The authors did a follow-up study eight years later: "The Long- Term Impact of Symbolic Gesturing During Infancy on IQ at Age 8" and found a significant difference between the two groups, with the signing babies having an average 12 point advantage in IQ scores, even though those children were no longer using any sign language. I don't necessarily think that these studies offer huge compelling reasons that you must sign with your baby if you're truly not interested in doing it. I just think it's important to note the evidence that signing with your baby is not going to take away from their verbal language development.
Having seen signing in action, I have to say that the idea that it facilitates language development makes a lot of sense to me. First of all, I think that any connection between symbol and object has to be beneficial. Second, the signs are always used along with saying the word, reinforcing the identification of a word instead of replacing it (in this way, sign language is not a second language for us, although you could use it that way if you were not also reinforcing the verbal forms of the words). Third, Finn being able to communicate with us offers a lot of opportunities for him to direct conversations. Often Finn will sign "bird" when he hears or sees one while we are out walking. That prompts us to try to find the bird, to point it out, and talk about it. At this point in his verbal development, if he were to just say "buh", we would have to figure out if he was talking about a ball, a bird, or a book, possibly confusing him and any connection he might be making in the meantime.
The bottom line is, sign language can be fun, ease frustration, and really help you and your baby communicate with each other. We really love that it gives Finn a way to communicate specific things to us that he is unable to yet use speech to do. If it seems stressful to you, then there's no reason to do it. For us it's been a wonderful and fun thing, so we'll continue learning it together.
Sign language for babies: awesome idea :)