Posted by: Ticktock | April 9, 2008

Sign Language Reality Check



These were about the only signs I learned on my short journey on the Sign Language Express.  I could’ve tried harder, but I didn’t see the point.  My baby isn’t deaf, she doesn’t have deaf siblings, I’m not deaf, and I’m not aware of any deaf person in my sphere of influence.  Why not teach her Latin or Chinese?  Or what about [sarcasm font] English [/sarcasm font]?

I don’t want to be a spoil sport for parents who have managed to communicate with their children via signing, but I also don’t understand what the big fuss is about.  Babies are pretty good at sending messages.  My baby arches her back when she is tired, lifts her arms when she wants to be picked up, cries in little cry-hiccups when she is hungry, and screams her head off when she bonks her head.

I’m also quite irrationally jealous on behalf of my baby when I see a kid signing fluently.  I start to feel like a bad parent because my kid can’t sign… as if it mattered.  But, maybe I’m just a sore loser because my kid isn’t a genious.  The truth is, I don’t know sign language- most parents don’t.  And, I think that parents take delight in teaching a simple skill that will not only propel their babies beyond the other toddlers, but also beyond the majority of adults.  It’s a parlor trick that parents have fooled themselves into believing is a sign of superior intelligence.

Infant sign language schools are actively trying to stop skeptics from questioning the usefulness of baby signing.  They list several replies to those who are skeptical about signing- not included in the list is any research that has been done on the topic.  I do know that there are a few studies that look on it favorably, but has done a good job of recently pointing out that many of those studies were flawed.

In 2005, researchers at the universities of Ottawa and Waterloo published a paper titled “Teaching Gestural Signs to Infants to Advance Child Development: A Review of the Evidence,” which examined the claims made by baby-signing advocates. The scientists reviewed more than 1,200 studies and found that only ten actually measured objective outcomes in teaching signing as compared with groups of hearing babies.

There are also numerous problems with the original positive study by Goodwyn and Acredolo…

Acredolo and Goodwyn failed to explain the methodology used to select and group their study’s children. It may be, for example, that the parents in the baby-signing group were volunteers who were already highly motivated, educated, and involved, and thus likely to foster language development in their babies with or without signing classes. In addition to the baby-signing test group, there were two control groups: one in which parents received training to encourage verbal language skills with their babies; the other in which there was no intervention at all. But Acredolo and Goodwyn followed up with only one of the control groups — the babies with no intervention — which means that no long-term comparisons can be made between the parents who were trained to encourage spoken language and the parents who were trained to use sign language. It is possible that the verbally trained babies did just as well with language acquisition and IQ as the signing children, but the research doesn’t say. Furthermore, the attrition rate in the follow-up study was as high as 40 percent. “When there’s a high attrition rate, you wonder what happened to the other children and whether they were intrinsically different from the subjects they could find,” Johnston told me.

A new book is out called Parenting Inc. by Pamela Paul that talks more about the issue of commercializing sign language and the evidence against it.  She also goes into several other topics such as Baby Einstein.  I fully plan on picking this up, and giving a full report soon.  You can hear Pamela talk about her book on Talk of The Nation with Neil Conan.

I haven’t had time to follow up on the meta-study of baby sign language or the original study.  I fully plan on interviewing both groups to get their sides of the story.  In the meantime, I won’t be teaching my child sign language.  I will, however, be teaching her all about Star Wars and the force.  Go ahead click that Star Wars link- too cute!

*UPDATE 10/3/08* – Dr. Sydney Spiesel discusses the research and the hype about baby sign language with Alex Chadwick on NPR.


  1. I sign with Erin. I haven’t spent any money to do so (there was a workshop offered at a new parents’ center that we were already members of), and I could care less if other people think that she’s a genius because she knows some signs.

    Babies are communicators, yes. But parents aren’t great understanders. Giving her signs to go along with her verbal vocabulary is a way for me to give her a little piece of the universe that she can control and that I can understand.

    Research, smesearch. I know that my daughter can do X. I know that I am doing A. I know that there isn’t necessarily a causal relationship between X and A. But there is a causal relationship between A and my feeling confident that she understands what I am talking about. I agree that the research on signing is in its infancy. But I don’t sign in order to accelerate her past the other kids. I do it because I don’t want to have to guess when she yells her head off.

    And so far, anectodally, she doesn’t freak out. I can’t point to her abiliity to communicate wishes to me, or her understanding of the signs I use with the sounds I make, as the cause of her even-temperment; she may just be an easy-going kid. But I don’t have a time machine to use to go back and NOT teach her signs to see if she’s as comfortable in the world.

    By all means, encourage researchers to study the effects of infant signing. If it turns out to be less useful than baby-talking then that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

    Parents are easy marks. And there’s a lot of stuff for parents to spend their money on, and smart marketers know that. So fads come along and inspire backlash when they become too ubiquitous.

    I’m going to teach her how to sign all of the dialogue in the Original Trilogy.

    Oh. And I don’t know sign language myself. So part of it is me wanting to learn another language.

    “Signing Time” is a great show for some basic signs.

  2. You’ve never showed off her signing skills? I wouldn’t blame you, really. I think signing is a neat thing for kids and it does seem impressive. I don’t want to come down as too judgemental; afterall, I really did try sign language with my daughter Sasha. But, I didn’t give it a huge effort.

    I remember one day when I was waiting tables in Chicago. I saw a girl younger than my daughter (barely a toddler at the time) fluently signing and eating with utensils. It was clear that the girl wasn’t deaf, so I asked the Mom about it and she told me that her daughter just picked it up easily. It was probably at that moment that I developed an inferiority complex about the issue.

    However, I do feel a responsibility to follow the science, which I don’t think is complete on this issue. I’m not really convinced either way, but maybe when I have time to examine the totality of the research, I’ll shift out of neutral. In the meantime, I think that there needs to be a check on companies that exploit these parenting topic for their profits.

  3. Hey, thanks for this post re: my Babble story on baby signing. Good to hear from another skeptic. If you get a chance to read the book, I’d love to hear what you think.

  4. Great to see other sceptics. Being a speech/language pathologist myself, I consider baby signs a typical example of creating a solution and then finding a problem for it, and making parents worry about something they didn’t know they had to worry about!

  5. I sign with my son. I bought an entire series of Sign Language DVDs to do so. Secretly, I’ve always wanted to learn how to sign. Now I thought I had a legitimate reason to do so (but you’ve just crushed because, honestly, I never really looked at the research supporting it – dang!)

    Based on my study of one:

    – My son can sign – sort of, although I didn’t spend a huge amount of effort doing so.
    – He was advanced in speech development compared to his peers (not that I was checking but it’s what everyone tells me). He was stringing four words together somewhere between 18 months and 2 years old – I can’t remember exactly when because I wasn’t taking notes.
    – He appears to be advanced intellectually (although my hubby attributes it to his “superior” genetic makeup).

    What I like about teaching sign language to my son:

    1. It a great activity that we can do together.
    2. It gives us a secret code that is semi-exclusive between us (since not many people around here know how to sign, let alone ASL).
    3. It’s fun.
    4. I fulfill my own personal desire.

    Plus, I’ve already read somewhere that by stimulating the language centers of the brain with a second language (or which Sign appears to be considered as one), you help foster the child’s ability to learn a second language later on in life. Okay, so I can’t substantiate this, but I do it in the hope that he’ll pick up a second language more readily than me (who can only speak English and am hopeless at learning new languages). Sign appears to be the “easiest” second language to learn – for me, anyway.

    I actively encourage him to learn other languages because I’m humiliated every time I have to face another Chinese person and say I can’t speak Chinese and then get called a “banana”.

  6. From what I’ve read it appears that signing hasn’t yet been clearly demonstrated to consistently have a strong affect on a child’s language development into future years.

    The reason I sign with my now 15 month baby girl is to enjoy the time between now and when she’s picked up better verbal language skills.

    Today we went to a street busker performer festival. She was noticing many things and pointed them quickly to me via sign. Without sign she probably would be able to indicate to me via pointing, etc. However, signing makes our outings (and even in home play) that much more fun and interactive.. e.g. She signed to me when she saw various pet animals, an airplane flying over head, some flowers, a young boy, a baby, some dolls in a window display, a picture of a cat on a tissue box, some fire, when she wanted to watch more performances, when she wanted some milk, etc, etc.

    Noticing my family’s interaction with her, it seems more rich and engaging, than what I’ve seen with many non-signing infants with their parents that resort to a lot of pointing.

    When my daughter wakes up in the morning, she’ll often immediately sign one of: water, mummy, uncle, downstairs, or potty. Or she won’t sign anything and I let her take a minute to open her sleepy eyes, before I sign to her various things e.g. potty, food, water, etc. To find out if she has any immediate interests.

    Many months after having looked at the (lack of) science showing signing to be v.important. I decided it was still worth while to help improve our day to day interaction and help her express herself until she’s able to get the words out of her still maturing vocal system.

    I think raising children is to try to enrich them at every stage of their development. and not just making them super smart successful adults.

    I expect she’ll be doing less signing as she picks up more words she can say. And I look forward to seeing her interact with her new baby cousins as they each start to learn some basic signs. Hopefully (I haven’t looked for the science yet) her teaching her infant cousins might reduce the chance of jealousy some older children feel when they have to share the stage with new infant arrivals.

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