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The other day came across a commercial of a 'course for sign language' for infants and toddlers.

I was a bit sceptical from the start and my suspicions only rose, then I discovered that there is what seems to me to be a multinational MLM scheme selling these courses and associated materials. https://www.babysigns.com/. It just looks to me as exploitation of self-deception in parents.

I reviewed a bit of research done in this area (starting with the Wikipedia article), and to me it seems that all answers to a question 'whether toddlers can learn sign language' so far are 'plausible, but not conclusive'.

If you know any other research in this subject that would be more conclusive, please let us all know!

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I only have anecdotal evidence from a close friend, I have witnessed her daughter singing the words for "Ow!" and "Red". Both used at the correct times; when pain was felt and playing with a red block. However her vocabulary was limited and her ability to sign emerged with in accepted time frame for normal toddler speech, although before she actually spoke. –  rjstelling Mar 3 '11 at 12:54
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Same here, just anecdotal evidence with my son. He could sign a few words before he spoke, such as milk, more and drink, which made our lives much easier for a few months as he stopped just crying for requesting these things. –  anansias Mar 3 '11 at 18:06
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More anecdotal evidence here — we had a lot of success with our first daughter, who learned about a dozen words and 180 signs by the time she was 1½ — at which point over the course of two weeks she entirely switched to speaking hundreds of words and only signing a few things. –  mattdm Mar 5 '11 at 1:32
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With the second daughter, it didn't work at all, because the first kid gets the new parents' laser-focused attention at all times, while the poor second child has to make noise to get her share. :) –  mattdm Mar 5 '11 at 1:33
    
Also: there are a number of different companies selling baby and kid sign language materials. I'd never heard of the one you link to. The one we got materials from does have a link to research <signingtime.com/resources/sign-language-research/>;, but, from a skeptical point of view, the studies are interesting but small and sparse. –  mattdm Mar 5 '11 at 1:40

4 Answers 4

I have to admit I only stumbled upon this question due to the activity on Jeff Blaine's post. However, it did spark enough interest for me to do a little poking into the matter.

Honestly, I can't say there's nothing to it, but it hasn't exactly knocked my socks off so to speak. "Plausible but not conclusive" really gets to the heart of it.

Based on all I found, Baby Signs is based on some legitimate, if not terribly compelling research and seems to be another one of those "half-true" claims where a legitimate phenomena becomes exaggerated or misrepresented (either intentionally or unintentionally) in the process of marketing a product.


First thing's first: What we don't yet know about human language acquisition could fill a warehouse.

But that doesn't mean just anyone can fill it with nonsense.
The science behind what could make "Baby Signs" work (or not) crosses many disciplines, and as such can be hard to validate or refute. A full analysis of their system would require a knowledge of neurology, biology, neurolinguistics, and psychology among others. In short, if you haven't read at least Piaget, Chomsky and Pinker you should, otherwise the context of academic debate surrounding the research may be difficult to impart (as there is no way possible to cover it all at length).

enter image description here
How do babies learn language?

It seems to be a chicken-and-egg problem. You can't learn the language until you know the words. But you can't distinguish the words until you know the language. Working with Jenny Saffran at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Elissa Newport at the University of Rochester, Aslin has found one way babies solve this dilemma: by using the pattern of sounds within words to distinguish the ends of words. Babies "pay attention to sounds that cohere within words, compared to the less predictive sounds that change as they span a word boundary," Aslin says. And when that pattern breaks, the baby understands that a new word is about to start. source

I chose this example to illustrate the fact that some headway is being made, but much remains unknown, and while we may observe many correlations we have yet to fully understand the mechanisms at work.

Speech samples taken from seven firstborn children and their mothers when the children were 1; 6 and 2; 3 were analysed within a number of semantic and syntactic categories to determine correlations between mothers' speech and subsequent language development. Several characteristics of mothers' speech (e.g. utterance length, use of pronouns) significantly predicted later child speech. The significant correlations suggested that mothers' choice of simple constructions facilitated language growth. Further, they showed that the motherese code differed from adult-adult speech in ways which aided language development. Differences between our study and previous investigations of environmental effects on language development probably resulted from the failure of earlier investigations to take into account children's level of language competence at the time when environmental effects were assessed.

This quote from journals/cambridge.org shows that when it comes to hard and fast data on language acquisition, we're really still just mining correlations and seeing what pans out. Science is if nothing else a gradual process, though.

The folks over at National Science Foundation voice the dilemma well...

How do children accomplish this remarkable feat in such a short amount of time? Which aspects of language acquisition are biologically programmed into the human brain and which are based on experience? Do adults learn language differently from children? Researchers have long debated the answers to these questions, but there is one thing they agree on: language acquisition is a complex process.

In short, there is much we do not yet know about the psychological, biological, neurological, sociological elements of language, which is a large part of what makes it such a fascinating topic, as it cuts to the core of how we express ourselves and understand each other.

But as we're reminded, we don't yet have a solid understanding of how this works:

From Confounded Age: Linguistic and Cognitive Factors in Age Differences for Second Language Acquisition

enter image description here

What does Baby Signs Claim?

enter image description here

Even when viewed skeptically, it seems harmless enough, though I'll look at the MLM aspect later.

History of the claim: Just how legitimate is the research (and researchers) Baby Signs is founded on?

As to the request for study on this topic, there is actually quite a lot. More than previous answers would lead you to believe. A list of publications from Linda Acredolo (The seemingly more predominant academic of the two) can be found here. She has published extensively on spatial recognition and symbolic gesturing in children among other topics. To the best of what I can find as of now, her publications have all been fairly well received. Two of her more notable works with Goodwyn would be:

Acredolo, L. P., & Goodwyn, S. W. (1990). Sign language among hearing infants: The spontaneous development of symbolic gestures. In V. Volterra & C. Erting (Eds.), From gesture to language in hearing and deaf children. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Acredolo, L. P., & Goodwyn, S. W. (1990). Sign Language in Babies: The significance of symbolic gesturing for understanding language development. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of Child Development (vol 7, pp 1-42). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Which obviously laid the ground for the "Baby Signs" enterprise, and their findings do have some independent verification.

enter image description here source

This idea seems to be validated by other sources including this from A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science:

In development, children often use gesture to communicate before they use words. The question is whether these gestures merely precede language development or are fundamentally tied to it. We examined 10 children making the transition from single words to two-word combinations and found that gesture had a tight relation to the children's lexical and syntactic development.

And even though this lists Paul Ekman among its cited references, the paper seems sound:

This study found that the facial action of moderately or widely opening the mouth is accompanied by brow raising in infants, thus producing "surprise" expressions in non-surprise situations. Infants (age = 5 months and 7 months) were videotaped as they were presented with toys that they often grasped and brought to their mouths. Episodes of mouth opening were identified and accompanying brow, nose, and eyelid movements were coded. Results indicated that mouth opening is selectively associated with raised brows rather than to other brow movements. Trace levels of eyelid raising also tended to accompany this facial configuration. The findings are discussed in terms of a dynamical systems theory of facial behavior and suggest that facial expression cannot be used as investigators' sole measure of "surprise" in infants. source

Don't let the fact that this product is marketed toward cute, healthy babies distract you from an understanding of just how important research into language acquisition actually is....

While the idea of baby being able to wave a hand to alert mommy and daddy to the fact he's hungry or filled up the diaper again seems adorable, yet trivial....

Just consider some of the studies done with regard to hearing-impaired children, children with autism-spectrum disorder and children who have received cochlear implants and you can see how vital and emotionally charged an understanding of the dynamics of communication between parent and child actually can be, that's the real research this based on. Here are just a few....

Will They Catch Up? The Role of Age at Cochlear Implantation in the Spoken Language Development of Children With Severe to Profound Hearing Loss

Defining Spoken Language Benchmarks and Selecting Measures of Expressive Language Development for Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders

Spoken Language Development in Children Following Cochlear Implantation

Does a foundation in legitimate principles and valid research imply a claim to efficacy? No. It doesn't. But no one makes the claim that Baby Signs is either guaranteed or effective. It only makes the claim that it is based on years of research, while leaving the reader to draw his/her own conclusions. They do offer a money-back guarantee I'm told (their people were very nice on the phone). After digging through the site, it seems most claims are made only by the slightest of implications and through videos of cute babies doing cute things. Even clicking on the "research proven benefits" link yields only this group of claims anyone could argue with until the proverbial cows come home:

enter image description here

Why MLM?

The MLM aspect of the business is always worthy of skepticism, however I haven't found complaints lodged with the BBB in the US, where the company is in fact highly rated and registered. Of course, that's only the parent company, and in a Multi-Level-Marketing Company the individual business "owners" shoulder the both the cost and liability, and a majority of those privateers associated with Baby Signs also seem to be in good standing in their various states:

some examples from Oregon and New Hampshire, a random sampling of states I checked (although if anyone else can check the other 48, and the other countries worldwide, I'd be interested to see what comes back).

I also found it quite difficult to find complaints against the company (from either customers or disgruntled multi-level marketeers) as you can easily do online with most MLM companies. So it seems while the company appears eager to capitalize on the enthusiasm of new parents, it also seems to do little to victimize them based upon it.

Does it work?

Unfortunately, after all that, the answer is.....maybe? Of the surprisingly few testimonials I was able to find regarding this product, one stood out to me, mostly because it read like the most beautiful, sweetly innocent version of confirmation bias I have ever come across, and I think while Baby Signs is based on research, this is what drives their sales and multi-level marketing:

After you have begun to sign with your baby, you may find that she is making new and unusual gestures that you never noticed before. They don’t quite look like the signs you have used with her, though you must admit there may be a slight resemblance. You begin to experience the first stirrings of hope and you think that maybe, just maybe, your baby is signing. Just a Coincidence? As the parent of a baby, you have likely witnessed your child as she tries out her new body, checking to see what it can do. Younger infants, especially, will sometimes test their range of motion by stretching, wiggling, and flexing their limbs. It is for that reason that you may have trouble believing that your child is actually signing. You may worry that you will interpret her spontaneous movements as a deliberate sign.

The good news is that your baby probably is signing. At the very least, she is likely trying to imitate the gestures she has watched you make, even if she has yet to comprehend their meanings.

It is better to give her the benefit of the doubt and react as if you are sure she is deliberately communicating with you. Acknowledge the sign, and then give her what you think she may be asking for. If she is signing, then you will be showing her that signing is a form of communication. If she is not signing, she may still associate the gestures with getting something she wants. This will take her one step closer to actually signing. And if it turns out that she didn’t want the object you thought she was asking for, she will undoubtedly let you know it! source

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Awesome! Many thanks for your research! –  Mchl Aug 18 '11 at 10:19
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had some free time and a little too much coffee –  Monkey Tuesday Aug 18 '11 at 10:24
    
Fantastic answer, thanks! –  Beofett Aug 18 '11 at 13:28

UPDATE:

After a quick Google search I found this study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1868823/ J Appl Behav Anal. 2007 Spring; 40(1): 15–23. doi: 10.1901/jaba.2007.23-06

and this one http://www.mybabycantalk.com/content/information/research/Impact%20of%20Symbolic%20Gesturing.pdf published in Journal of Nonverbal Behavior Volume 24, Number 2, 81-103, DOI: 10.1023/A:1006653828895

So, yes, there have been scientific studies done.


Yes, there definitely is something to it, and there is more than just anecdotal evidence that there is. Have a look on Google for Fireese. She's a little girl whose mother taught her sign from a very young age.

@Ilari Kajaste:

"There's also not much point in using standardized language that's shared among many families, since a baby will most likely only communicate with her parents."

Why teach a nonsense language when you can teach a baby a recognised language like ASL or BSL? Would you teach your child pidgin or a language like English, Chinese, or Spanish? Since you're going to be teaching the baby something, why not teach s/he something they can potentially use in general in life?

"so there's also the question of what's the point of teaching the baby to sign"

The point is that you can communicate with your baby. If they are able to communicate that they are hungry in seconds, that is time saved for the parent trying to figure out what is wrong, and reduces the distress the baby is having by being hungry.

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I'm afraid 'look on Google for Fireese' is not convincing evidence. Her case can be treated as a single data point at best –  Mchl Aug 17 '11 at 9:15
    
"single data point at best"? Really? Watch the series of videos of Fireese on youtube. Watch her signing, clearly understood signs. If that isn't evidence, tell me what is. Did the the mother fabricate each video? –  Jeff Blaine Aug 17 '11 at 9:27
    
A single person is a single data point. I am not saying it is a fraud. I am not saying the videos are fabricated. What I am saying, is that I would like to see results of controlled scientific research done on large groups of children. So far we haven't been able to find such evidence. This does not mean it's impossible for babies to learn to sign. It only means there is no scientific evindence for that (or against that for that matter). –  Mchl Aug 17 '11 at 9:41
    
Agreed. For the point of the question, no, there appears not to be any scientific evidence from studies that there is evidence for or against the ability of babies to learn and use sign language. The question of whether babies actually are learning and using sign language is to me more important than whether someone has formally studied it. And the answer to that is yes, they do. –  Jeff Blaine Aug 17 '11 at 10:18
    
And you base your answer on? –  Mchl Aug 17 '11 at 10:21

Children of Deaf adults (CODAs) learn to sign as babies.

My son (20 Months) has a signed vocabulary of over 55 words in addition to his spoken vocabulary and we have used no purchased products and I am hearing.

ASL is a language and just as toddlers can learn to speak Spanish and English if they are exposed to both on a regular basis, they can learn to use ASL and speak in their native tongue simultaneously.

There are companies that sell products to help parents learn the signs to use with their babies but from the research I conducted a year ago in looking to team up with one, they are simply companies who hire instructors and sell products. I haven't seen any MLM in them. I have not, however, researched BabySigns.

You can gain access to many free resources online (including lifeprint.com, signingsavvy.com, aslpro.com and babysignlanguage.com) but the risk in this is that you do not know if you are correctly forming the sign and there is no one there to stop you and correct you if you are. Just as you have no way of knowing how well you are doing in spoken languages you are learning without anyone to hear you (even if it's an electronic someone). The same is true if you purchase the videos or check them out from your local library.

So can they learn it:Yes and they have control of their hands before their vocal cords so they may well start to communicate earlier through signs.

Are signing companies MLM schemes: None that I have seen. Can you use free resources to teach? Yes, but you have no feedback on your correctness.

As to the above question about baby sign being a subset: ASL is a true language as categorized by linguists. It has grammar, structure, is dynamic, has rules, etc. "Baby sign"(..ugh I do hate that term because of the ambiguity) may be ASL or it may not. If the child is using ASL signs without the correct grammar they are using a real language but incorrectly or in more of a manual code on English (e.g. Signed Exact English) and can later learn the grammar (if exposed to it they will learn it as tots). If they are using gestures that were created for use by babies then it is not a language but is just a set of gestures understood by the parents of the children that are being taught those gestures but it will not be understood by those using ASL.

And I can assure you that, although my son will technically count as an anecdote, he is understood by Deaf and other ASL users when we attend local Deaf events.

Much data on the use of ASL with hearing children can be found in the book Dancing with Words by Marilyn Daniels

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I believe this misunderstands the original question and my question. At, or after, the normal age for acquisition of speech, children can also learn ASL, Auslan or similar. They are true languages. And teaching students to form the signs clearly is important to communicate with others in the deaf community. But the original question, I believe, wanted to know if there is evidence that they can learn signs before that age - whether it is based on a common sign language or completely artificial. I also want to know if they can they form novel sentences? i.e. is it a "real" language. –  Oddthinking Aug 20 '11 at 16:20
    
Also, the website of M. Daniels is not an authoritative source (and besides, looks like a promo to sell a book). –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Aug 20 '11 at 19:59

What is called "baby sign language" is just a subset of American Sign Language (with a few simplifications).

What the Baby Sign company sells you is educational books and videos (at very reasonable prices), but if you want to learn ASL, you can do it in many other venues (including online for free). I think your characterisation of them as MLM is inaccurate: their goal seems to be to sell you products.

I have met several toddlers who sign. What is inconclusive is whether it helps them over the longer term.

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I admit I did not research Baby Signs company in much detail. I just got a bit suspicious after seeing offers of becoming an instructor of their courses (which involves buying certifications trainings etc). –  Mchl Mar 4 '11 at 8:11
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"(at very reasonable prices)"? Sounds spammy to me. I suggest you edit your answer. –  rjstelling Mar 4 '11 at 11:38
    
I don't know if it helps children long-term, but it can help parents when their child wants something, but hasn't yet learned to talk. My niece learned a few sign-words before she was able to speak, and through that, she was able to communicate her wants and needs. I'm teaching my son (7 months) signs by when I speak, I sign as well. I have an ASL textbook, and an app for my phone. I plan on keeping it up, and constantly learning ASL since my hearing isn't so great anyway. If you keep it up with your kids, it's more likely to help kids in the future, I think. –  Ustice Mar 4 '11 at 13:38
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@rjstelling I wrote as someone who paid $40 for a set of books and videos, not as a sales rep. –  luispedro Mar 4 '11 at 22:35
    
Please provide some references to support your claims, such as baby sign "just being a subset". (I am interested whether it is a subset that would still be characterised as "language" by linguists, or whether it is "merely" 3 or 4 movements that trigger responses from parents in the same way pushing a button on a toy may make music play. Alas, the signing toddlers you met count as anecdote. We don't know if they were really signing or not. –  Oddthinking Aug 19 '11 at 1:28

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