Baby sign language: myths debunked

Posted 2011, 2013, updated 2021.

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.

However, you need to understand that ASL has been appropriated and commercialized into "baby sign" industry by non-natives. Baby sign language draws its public attention in the mid-1990s with a bunch of prevalent misconceptions about sign language.

Baby sign language reflects a mass set of phonocentric beliefs and biases as well as misleads notions of the nature of language, specifically signed language. We must consider a respect for other cultures and languages when it comes to taking over an authority of teaching a language that is not yours.

The greatest irony by Maureen Klusza
"The greatest irony." Illustrated by artist Maureen Klusza, 2007(?)

Cultural appropriation

The term 'baby sign language' arose originally and culturally appropriated and distorted out of authentic (signed) languages. ASL is culturally appropriated into "baby SIGN language" that is basically an illusion as much as 'baby speech language'.

The concept 'baby sign language' is no more different than Baby French Language, Baby German Language, Baby Spanish lanugage or Baby Speech Language. You get the picture now?

Manipulating the authentic, rich language (ASL) into 'baby sign language' while commonly forbidding Deaf babies from acquiring human language (ASL) is absolutely unacceptable. 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.

Parents from all over the world naturally use parentese (or "motherese") in either spoken or signed languages. Parentese or motherese is the way parents talk with their babies in their natural languages (e.g. "mama" instead of "mother") regardless of signing or speech.

Here are some myths to debunk some misconceptions and misrepresentations about 'baby sign language'.

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

Many marketing materials claim that their 18 month old infants have accrued a vocabulary of 200 or more signs. But, not in reality. 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 signed words by 18 months, which are, of course, not advertised.

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. One of my ASL level-200 students, who was exceptionally gifted, told me that she didn't vocally speak until late age two.

Myth: Babies can sign earlier than they can speak.

Language does 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)

Research studies including linguistics and neuroscience (Petitto and Marentette) show that all stages or milestones of language acquisition are on the same timeline in both modalities (signing and speech). 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').

Every language in both signing and speech modalities has some easy words and some hard words to pronounce for babies. 'Ease of production' of a word along with repetitious exposure to a word, whether signed or spoken, plays a pivotal role as to when a baby can produce a word, signed or spoken.

For example, English-speaking babies use "mama" instead of "mother". Likewise, ASL-speaking babies use a different handshape of MOTHER. On the contrary, ASL babies can manually pronounce MORE easier than English babies can vocally produce "more." Converserly, the English toddlers can vocally pronounce "seven, eight" in number counting much easier than the ASL toddlers producing the same numbers in ASL, because these marked handshapes are much harder to manually pronounce even though the ASL toddler knows the numbers!

Neuroscientist Dr. Petitto also pointed that the claim from some researchers that, "first signs" are acquired earlier than spoken words, is "wholly unfounded."

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

The underlying idea about baby signing is that babies are capable of expressing needs using a language by coordinating their manual articulators (hands, fingers, arms, etc.) earlier before they can coordinate their vocal articulators (lips, tongue, diaphragm, glottis, etc). This claim is false. This claim is unsupported in language acquisition studies.

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 adapted 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 (or 20). The more difficult handshapes -- R, W, 8, and T come later in keeping with the child's signing 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. Some utterances emerged initially as imitations of sounds which eventually 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.

For example, 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 (pronoun) 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.

Modality (e.g. signed or spoken form) itself doesn't necessarily enhance a baby's IQ. Language does. A factor, that heightens IQ, is bilingualism. Research verifies many benefits of bilingualism. Thus, one has to use a full-fledged language, ASL.

How can teaching an infant a limited list of individual ASL words (or spoken French words, or Spanish words) have to do with advertised brain booster? It takes decade on a daily basis of speaking ASL in a community to become fluent. Many 'baby sign language' participants use a limited number of ASL words without grammar. Moreover, many hearing self-taught people talk in ASL either with very rudimentary grammar or 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 as claimed in 'baby sign language', be highly acclaimed (marketed) in comparison to authentic bilingual acquisition in 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 children are often 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 and Deaf families?

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. Realistically, even with more ASL words (or English words), it'd give them the ability to utter more demands that might be unfulfilled! My bilingual ASLian toddler back then could express more what she wanted, begged, or demanded for more candy or chocolate!

Myth: Sign language helps strengthen parent-child bonds.

Again, 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" and the word "communicate" reduplicated in literature imply a phonocentric perception. Signed languages aren't "pre-verbal" nor "non-verbal". They are not precursor to speech. Both sign language and speech language are "verbal" (as in the non-written form).

The term 'help' reminds one of a paternalistic attitude toward a language in the visual-spatial modality and of superiority above signed language. The term "communicate" implies that signing is not on par with talking. The term 'before talking' indicates speech is true and above signing.

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 languages. Linguistics and neuroscience studies show all the evidence.

Deaf people don't communicate with one another. They talk, chat, banter, argue, yell, joke, tease, swear, chit-chat, and all in visual-spatial modality. We speak ASL.

Myth: Baby sign language may delay speech.

Sequential and simultanous bilingual hearing and deaf 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. In fact, many bimodal-bilingual deaf and hearing children of Deaf parents perform great in academics. Neuroscience studies show evidence that language is amodal.

Many hearing toddlers, who are never exposed to 'baby sign language', do have a language delay in speech, like one of my students I mentioned above. Imagine, if those very same speech-delay children were using sign language, it would be very easy and quick to finger-point to sign language and blame it for the speech delay which could occur without signing nevertheless. An easy scapegoat.

Audism in concepts

Myth: [insert gestures here] are a form of sign language.

As seen in 'baby sign language' discourse, they wrote that 'blowing a kiss', 'waving bye', gestural pointing, and such are a form of sign language. No, they are not sign language.

They are manual gestures no more different from vocal gestures such as kiss-smacking, razzying raspberries, sticking out tongue, and such. It would be funny or strange to hear 'they are a form of speech language.'

Misconception: People sometimes tell me that I teach my child ASL.

No, Deaf parents don't teach their children ASL. Their hearing and deaf children acquire the signed language in the same way hearing children acquire spoken language from parents. The Deaf parents sit and read books to their children in ASL, chat with them, interact with them, tell them stories, and so on.

Takeaways

To be part of allyship, become aware of cultural appropriation, linguicism, audism, and how words are used. Unpack them.

Like other parents who encourage their kids learn second languages such as Cree, French, Dene, Spanish, etc., make sure your children learn ASL or other signed languages from Deaf-owned, Deaf-run sign language products, services, and websites whenever possible.

Every language and culture deserve an equal respect. The signed language is a strong cultural identity with pride at the heart of Deaf people. Respecting the people of our language and culture the same way you respect other spoken languages is greatly valued and appreciated.

References

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." http://www.editora-arara-azul.com.br/ebooks/catalogo/21.pdf

Rachel I. Mayberry and Bonita Squirres. "Sign Language Acquisition." http://www.mcgill.ca/files/mayberrylab/Mayberry-Squires.pdf

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. http://petitto.gallaudet.edu/~petitto/img_upload/posters-for-media/021-JCL.pdf

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