Baby sign language: myths debunked

Baby sign language reflects a mass set of phonocentric beliefs as well as misleads notions of the nature of language, specifically signed language. It's no more different than creating Baby French language, Baby German Language, Baby Spanish lanugage or Baby Speech Language. How ridiculous is it? You get the picture now?

Parents from all over the world naturally use parentese (or "motherese") in either spoken or signed languages. The term 'baby sign language' arose originally and culturally appropriated out of authentic (signed) languages.

Don't get me wrong. Teaching an infant a signed language is a wonderful thing. I fully support bilingualism, talking with a baby in two or more languages. In part, my enthusiasm is bolstered by studies that verify the benefits of bilingualism.

On the contrary, manipulating the authentic, rich language (ASL) into 'baby sign language' while commonly forbidding Deaf babies from acquiring human language (ASL) is absolutely unacceptable which is something that disparages, misrepresents, and distorts the authenticity of ASL. ASL beats strong and with pride at the heart of our culture and identity.

There is a big difference between 'teaching a baby a few words of the language ( ASL)' and claiming it to teach an infant 'baby sign language.'

The purpose of this post is to debunk some myths, misconceptions, and misrepresentations about 'baby sign language,' myths that were born of phonocentric and audistic thinking.

Myth #1: Babies can sign earlier than they can speak.

Languages do not dictate the age at which a baby can say or sign a word. The factor that controls the timeline for all aspects of language acquisition is the human brain.

Studies by neuroscientist Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto show that when articulating or listening, signed and spoken languages activate the same linguistic-specific regions (e.g. Broca and Wernicke) of the brain. This evidence debunks the myth that speech is central to language.

"The human brain does not discriminate between the hands and the tongue. People discriminate, but not our biological human brain." -- Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto (Gallaudet Today, Spring 2012, p. 17)

Deaf children of Deaf parents acquire language on a timeline consistent with the timeline for the acquisition of language by hearing children of hearing parents. Both begin by canonical babbling, then progress to one-word stage, then two-word utterances and then move forward from there. Both move on similar timelines, pass through similar developmental stages and all of the children make similar errors such as pronoun reversal errors (Petitto and others).

In both signing and speech, babbling precedes referential words. Marginal babbling (e.g. 'ma, ma') and syllabic babbling (e.g. 'mamama') emerge at about 4-6 months and 6-7 months respectively. Referential words appear at about 10 months of age. This holds true during the acquisition of signed and spoken languages. It is not the language or modality that dictate the aforementioned linguistic sequence. The baby's developing brain dictates that.

The babbling syllable for 'milk' in ASL is the repetitive opening and closing of the hand. This may prompt an incorrect assumption that the baby's ability to sign certain words precedes the baby's ability to speak those words (e.g. 'milk').

On the other hand, it's much easier and earlier for a baby to say 'mama' for the English word 'mother' than to produce the ASL sign for "mother" which takes much longer to develop (proximalization).

'Ease of production' of a word, whether signed or spoken, plays a pivotal role as to when a baby can produce a word, signed or spoken. It is not unusual for isolated words in all languages that 'ease of production' along with repetitious exposure to a word, signed or spoken, determine which words a baby will produce a few first words (whether ASL or English).

Myth: A baby knows as far as 250 signs by 18 months.

Many parents claim that their 18 month old infants have accrued a vocabulary of 200 or more signs. But, there are also babies have acquired over 200 spoken words by 18 months. On the other hand, there are also many babies who know less than 50 signs by 18 months, which are, of course, not advertised. No difference.

Children develop at different rates. Some 18-month old babies have extensive vocabularies, others have only a few words and most fall somewhere between those extremes in either signed or spoken languages.

Myth: It is easier to sign than it is to speak.

This claim is unsupported in language acquisition studies. In truth, the acquisition of a signed language is as complex and sophisticated as the acquisition of a spoken language.

Whether speaking or signing there exists a limited number of phonological units (i.e. sounds in speech and primes in signing) that constrain production in both vocal-aural and visual-spatial systems.

In speech, the initial stop consonants, p, b, m, d and k, appear in babbling and early words. The fricatives, s, v and z, appear much later. For example, the English word 'mama,' comes much earlier than the more difficult word 'mother.' The word 'bye' comes earlier than the more complex word 'hello.' This is in keeping with the child's phonological development.

The same holds true for manual babbling. The handshapes found in early words are: A, 5, B, 1, C, and the Baby O. The more difficult handshapes, R; W; 8 and T come later in keeping with the child's signlan development.

In a study of three native ASL families (Deaf children of Deaf parents) ages 7 to 17 months, researchers found that nearly 80 percent of early signs were produced with the correct location of articulation and about 45 percent were done with correct movements. In marked contrast, a mere and approximate 25 percent were produced using correct handshapes!

Myth: Signed words are iconic.

The idea that signing is easier than speaking apparently originated from the idea that signed words are iconic. All languages, signed and spoken, have some degree of iconicity. Because, all languages emerge first as more iconic and then become more abstract as time goes by.

In spoken languages, most iconicity is based on sound, and is reflected in words that bear some resemblance to a sound that the spoken word represents. In English, for example, some utterances emerged initially as imitations of sounds. Eventually, those imitations evolved into 'words.' This sound-to-word phenomenon is known as 'onomotopoeia.' Examples are words such as: chirp, argh! zip, ouch, hum, hiss, peep, snore, toot, burp, buzz, hiccup, bam, scream, eek and crash.

In signed languages, most iconicity is based on visuals and is reflected in signs that bear some resemblance to the referent or concept they represent. Some signs began as iconic and, over time, evolved into more abstract versions of the original signs. Countless other signs were non-iconic at their inception.

Studies confirm that hearing adults cannot identify ASL iconic words, until each of their meanings is explained. Then, they'd respond "Ah, now I see the resemblance!" Adults connect the degree of iconicity to their life experience. Iconicity does not play a significant role in a baby's acquisition of ASL. But, that's not the point.

The point is that 18 month old toddlers, who are exposed to native ASL from birth, exhibit a classical (and normal), pronominal confusion/reversal error (an important evidence) as those typically found in 18 month old English-speaking toddlers! Despite that gestural (non-linguistic) pointing (emerging at 9 months) and linguistic pointing (emerging at around 18 months) share the same form, yet they process differently in the brain. And, despite that linguistic pointing (pronouns) is extremely iconic, native signing toddlers make similar reversal error! Both of them usually figure out the correct referential pronouns by age 2 (24 months).

This remarkable study (Petitto) confirms that pronominal pointing and common errors during language acquisition are basic functions of human linguistic-cognitive behavior and not related to specific modalities (spoken or signed).

Myth: Baby sign language boosts IQ.

A modality (e.g. signed form) itself cannot enhance a baby's IQ. Language does. A factor, according to research, heighten IQ is bilingualism. Research verifies the many benefits of bilingualism. Thus, one has to use a full-fledged language, ASL.

How can teaching an infant a limited list of ASL words (or spoken French words, or Spanish words) have to do with advertised brain booster? Most people are not fluent in ASL and it takes decade on a daily basis of speaking ASL in a community to become fluent. Many 'baby sign language' use ASL words without grammar. Moreover, many people learn ASL and communicate either with very rudimentary grammar and English-ish grammar which is not a true language (inconsisent with phonological and grammatical constructs in the brain).

How can a relatively few isolated, individual signs boost IQ claimed in 'baby sign language', be compared to authentic children (regardless of deaf or hearing) born to native signers (usually Deaf) and fully exposed to native signed language on a 7/24 from birth? These ASL-speaking infants acquire to the fullest exposure of full-fledged language (ASL) with complex grammar, structure, semantics, pragmatics, and all. These virtually all children are are bilingual or even trilingual. How is that hearing people acclaim 'baby sign (language)' yet disregards such profound reverence of full-fledged language acquisition in ASL in bilingual deaf and coda children? Uncountable deaf children are implanted with cochlear implants around the world and a large percent of them are forbidden from using signed language during their critical period of language development.

Myth: Sign language helps reduce temper tantrums.

Sign language, per se, does not have the potential to reduce temper tantrums any more than speech language. Even with more ASL words (or English words), it'd give them the ability to utter more demands that might be unfulfilled! My native (bilingual) ASLian toddler back then could express more what she might want to demand.

Myth: Sign language helps strengthen parent-child bonds.

A sign language itself does not establish or strengthen the parent-child bonds any more than speech language. Language + medium/modality = communication. Language = any languages, including ASL and English. The bonds are established, strengthened and maintained by an abundance of interconnected factors: communication, love, a sense of security, etc.

Myth: baby sign language helps a baby to communicate before she/he can talk.

This common phrase "helps communicate before talking" reduplicated in literature feels like scratching down the blackboard with fingernails. It implies such phonocentrism, audism, and linguicism.

The term 'help' reminds one of an attitude of paternalism toward the language in the visual-spatial modality and of superiority above signed language. The term "communicate" implies that signing is not on par with talking and that ASL is not recognized as as true, natural language as spoken language. The term 'before talking' indicates speech is true and above signing; English is above ASL.

Signing is talking. ASL is a language. There is no "before". The terms 'talk,' and 'talking' refer to the form of non-written modality, that is, either signed or spoken, which allow humans to express themselves and 'converse' with others. Remind that ASL and English activates the same linguistic regions of the brain when speaking either language.

In addition, we can recognize that 'parentese' (or 'motherese') exists in every language of the world, including ASL and other signed languages, in which parents communicate with babies, ways that differ considerably from the ways they communicate with other adults.

Myth: Baby sign language may delay speech.

Which language in signed language? Speech is not a language. Nor signing. They are modalities, vehicles of language. Blame French or Spanish natively spoken at home for a delay in English second language acquisition, would one? Sequential and simultanous bilingual hearing children of ASL-speaking parents turn out perfectly fine. These bimodal-bilinguals acquire two languages sequentially or simultaneously the similar way as monomodal-bilingual toddlers and preschoolers.

Many hearing children, who are never exposed to 'baby sign language', have language delays. How would one know it's 'baby sign language' to blame if used? It's something very easy and quick to finger-point to it and blame. It's quite audist.

On the contrary, bilingual babies who learn two languages on a daily basis at early age, whether signed or spoken, have a natural talent for meshing the languages nicely. In other words, one language does not suffer because another language lives alongside it; the well-documented benefits of the two languages are cognitively rich.

In closing

There is no such as 'baby sign language' just as there is no such thing as 'baby speech language'. If you use the term 'baby sign', use your baby English words or baby words from other spoken languages instead. If you wish to borrow a few words such as 'more' from ASL, it's all right. But, call them ASL words. Some native signers do use a few spoken English words with our kids sometimes in our native ASL-speaking environment, but we don't call them baby speech language.


Karen Emmorey (2002). "Sign Language Acquisition" Language, Cognition, and the Brain: Insights from Sign Language Research. Chapter 5, pp 169-204.

Lapiak, Jolanta (2011-present). Documentation of language acquisition in American Sign Language (ASL) from birth to the present in a native ASL-signing environment.

Diane Lillo-Martin. "Sign Language Acquisition Studies: Past, Present and Future."

Rachel I. Mayberry and Bonita Squirres. "Sign Language Acquisition."

Petitto and Marentette (1991). "Babbling in the manual mode: Evidence for the ontogeny of language." Science 251: 1493-1496.

Petitto, Laura Ann (2001). "Bilingual signed and spoken language acquisition from birth: implications for the mechanisms underlying early bilingual language acquisition." Cambridge University Press. Pp 453-496.

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Documentation of the child's language development in ASL from birth to the present.

This documentation project follows a baby's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, week by week from gazing at birth to manual babbling, to first words just before the first birthday in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.

The second-year and third-year documentation continues to follow the same child's language and phonological acquisition and literacy development in ASL on a weekly basis from the one-word stage to two-word and multiple utterances.

The documentary continues to follow the same child's ASL language and literacy development on a regular basis from age three to four. It surveys ASL phonological acquisition and more complex utterances.

These posts on ASL-English bilingualism, language acquisition, and bilingual education may be of an interest for parents who raise a bilingual-bimodal child in ASL (or another signed language) and English (or another written and/or spoken language of its respective) as well as informative and educational for ASL specialists, educators, and professionals.