Emerging one-word stage in sign language
The one-word stage begins at around first birthday as commonly found in spoken language acquistion. Sign language is no exception. As the baby Juli approached her first birthday, one ASL word after another began to unfold more and relatively quicker.
The last couple of weeks shy away from the first birthday was somehow like a beginning of the one-word "blossoming". A time distance between two new ASL protowords had become gradually shorter and shorter.
Producing ASL words
Juli was eyeing for a partially bitten cookie lying on the plate on a Christmas Day. She pointed to it and looked at her second cousin "RG". RG responded cookie in ASL.
Juli thought for a moment. Then she tried to produce cookie.
Lately Juli has produced or imitated some ASL words that were more recognizable within the contexts than previously considered as babbles: cookie as illustrated above, grape, Christmas, milk (yes, we haven't used this in a long time)...
Juli produced Christmas on Christmas Day. Few days later Juli sat on my lap while she watched the video I edited. She responded to the baby producing Christmas. I replayed the videos more than few times, and her productions were highly consistent.
This incident is similar to the "bear" incident two weeks ago, in which Juli responded to the video doing the same babble or production. This suggests that she understood what she saw on the video.
Video clips: Daily interactions with Juli. In one part where Juli sat with her back in front of me, she turned around to listen visually. It was pretty natural. Face to face interaction is not necessarily always.
Emerging more ASL referential words
(m12w5) In addition to some recent ASL words that Juli had produced -- e.g. Christmas and cookie, she had produced some more ASL expressions that were recognizable with a clear reference and some distinct productions but I don't know their references yet.
One of those distinct expressions was "driving a car". She razzied while moving her hands up and down somehow alternatively. [video above]
Another distinct referential production was vaccuum. Juli often pointed to the vacuum and produced vacuum with a razzy.
Juli "clapped" with two fists (ball) when she walked toward a big blue ball. This time the handshape had changed to the fist handshape. In the past, the handshape was an open handshape which looked like claps.
Some few other ASL productions were clear but their references were unknown. For examples, the right-handed 5-handshape (or open handshape) tapping on her chest was what I interpreted as "bath" where she was undressed down to a diaper and the bathroom light was turned on. But, I cannot assume this connection to a meaning.
Another, Juli tapped her fist or closed handshape on the side of her head. My first guess was its reference to "father". But, I would have to wait and look closely in the next days.
Language to her, babbling to us, oops!
In the past weeks, I watched Juli producing something that was babbling to our eye. Sometimes I wondered if she was expressing something meaningfully that we never could comprehend. Wish I would understand her "babbles" if not unmeaningful.
Bingo! I had my luck that I could connect her "babble" (that is, a symbol) to the object. See the video below and then the discussion after that.
One morning I noticed the babble a few times more or less. I dismissed it that it was too a babble more than a word. Also following the babble, Juli produced eat (now with a fist rather than an open hand).
That time, I was preparing fruits including a banana for the smoothie. Soon I'd forgot about this competely.
Later in the same day, Juli produced the same distinct "babble" more than few times that I noticed. At first, I casually assumed that Juli was referring to a bread. Or even butter. I responded with a nod, bread.
At that time, I was making a toast with butter, apple sauce, and banana sprinkled with cinnamon.
Yet Juli kept pointing and babbling while the toast was in a different location. I took this opportunity. This time I suspected it was banana.
I pointed to and picked up a jar of apple sauce. Juli still pointed. I pointed and picked up a bottled water. Juli still pointed with determination. I handed her butter. She still pointed. I picked up the banana. Her handshape changed from index finger to the open handshape ("that-one").
Resisting to hand the banana to her and delaying her gratification, I further tested by placing the banana to the other side. Juli pointed and I pointed. Still pointed. I picked up the banana and Juli changed the handshape to "that-one".
After reviewing and editing the videos, I just realized that Juli referred the "babble" to the banana that morning. Further I realized that it was two words banana eat!
Now I also realized that Juli, like many other babies, might have communicated meaningfully much more than we could understand. It was not easy to identify what were considered babbles due to the earliest phonological development.
At the beginning of third week, I noticed an emerging difference about her communication. She talked more as if we were having a conversation.
Signed words earlier than spoken words: a myth or a truth?
It's debatable, at least for the period prior to the one-word stage.
But, research evidence shows that the stages of language acquisition beyond the one-word stage are identical in both signlan and speech. So why not one-stage word too?
Studies (Petitto) show that the stages of language acquisition from birth to age 5 and beyond are identical among infants in both signlan and speech.
Furthermore, study (Petitto and Marentette) found that bilingual-bimodal hearing infants exposed to signed and spoken languages do babbling in both manual and vocal within the same developmental stages of language.
You probably ask what's with those claims in the "baby sign language" discourse that infants acquire signs earlier than spoken words.
Below explains a couple of reasons how older studies from a group of researchers used such methodological techniques as follows:
1) In a linguistic standard, if vocal productions within this period (syllabic babbling stage at 7-10 months) are not used referentially, they are considered babbling. But, in these studies, the "recognizable" manual productions were not used referentially by infants and they were misinterpreted as "first signs".
2) Likewise, we know that when a baby vocally babbles "ma-ma", "pa-pa", or such at 6-7 months, these babbles are not attached to the mother, grandpa, or such respectively. Babies understand the link between the word and its referent at later months (at around 10 months, earlier or later).
Another reason is that parents view some ASL productions as easier to produce than some spoken English words. It's an illusion. Producing ASL milk is no easier than producing spoken English "mama" or "dada". Infants follow the same phonological restrictions and development in speech and signlan. E.g. toddlers can only use a few handshapes (open hand, index figner, and "A" handshape).
Another reason is that parents view sign language as more iconic that they assume it must be easier for infants to understand and express in sign language. Again, it's an illusion. First, infants don't see ASL words as iconic as parents see. Iconicity is associated with life experience. Second, iconicity in some ASL words are not transparent but transulcent (see the other article on this topic).
A more reason for producing ASL protowords has to do with the ease of production, nothing to do with iconicity. E.g. closing/opening hand for "milk". It is no easier than producing vocal "baba". If "baba" were "milk" in English, then infants can produce "baba" for milk, no later than the ASL production "milk".
That said, signed words are not earlier than spoken words for two distinct reasons:
It's language-capacity controlled by the brain that decides when an infant is ready to produce at a certain milestone, regardless of signlan or speech, regardless of "iconicity" (e.g. "woof" for dog in speech).
It's not sign language. It's what and how words (whether in signlan or speech) are easy to produce. E.g. spoken "baba" for grandpa or milk. Tapping on leg for "dog" instead of ASL word #dog. Speaking "mama" for mother instead of vocally producing mother.
That way, we have more productions that are easy to produce for infants in both speech and signlan. That is, signed words are not earlier than spoken words.
Remember, signed words are language, absolutely not "communicating before talking". It is a language, period. That is, using both signlan and speech in their respective languages is bilingualism. They emerge at about the same milestones.
A toddler may use more speech protowords than signlan ones or vice versa. Some toddlers may acquire words earlier than other children. It is nothing to do with sign language. It has to do with how much parents interact with their children that help them develop language earlier.
My firsthand experience with my baby "Juli" are well-fit with these research studies. Like the bilingual-bimodal infants in these studies, Juli also has demonstrated the same milestones from the babbling stages to the first (proto)words in both modalities (signlan and speech).
If I were to be blunt in answering to the question "Are signed words acquired earlier than spoken words?", then it's a myth.
Then what is the benefit of using a language in signlan? Bilingualism. It comes with a number of benefits from cognitive flexibility to literacy. You can choose spoken French and spoken English, or signed ASL and spoken English.
References / suggested readings
Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies. Developmental neurocognition: speech and face processing in the first year. Pp 366-369.
Got a story to tell your experience and share it with others? Send an email to Handspeak. I'd love to hear about it, too.
"My son is now one year old. About two months ago, I looked up the sign for 'medicine' because he had been given an antibiotic for his cold, and I wanted to describe it in ASL for him. Well, I showed it to him only about three times. Two months passed, and he got a sinus infection. I was talking to him about taking his medicine. when I said 'medicine,' he made this sign I didn't recognize. He put one finger on the middle of his other palm. I thought it was kind of funny that he did it every time I said 'medicine' but that he must have made it up because I couldn't place it. just to be sure, though, I looked up the sign for medicine again. It's the truth, my one year old son remembered the sign for medicine that I showed him only three times, two months ago, and I didn't!! I guess us human beings are amazing creatures. We are never too old to stop learning, and never too young to teach! I am grateful for the wonderful resources (such as your site!!) that have allowed me to learn ASL so that i can teach it to my son. It's altered my perspective in so many magical ways! thanks for everything!" -- Aleta. May 6, 2003.