Thursday, May 2, 2013

Signing and Learning to Talk | Laying a concern to rest by Linda Acredolo, Ph.D and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D.

The most frequently voiced concern about encouraging babies to communicate with signs is that doing so will discourage them form learning to talk. In fact, we often refer to this belief as the 'Grandparent' myth because we so often hear it voiced by moms in the following way:

"My son's Grandparents are always saying, "If he gets what he wants without using words, he'll never learn to talk.What should I tell them?"

This is what we tell them:
1. Well-designed, government-funded research has shown that the opposite is true. Using a large grant from the National Institues of Health, we carefully compared babies whose parents encouraged them to use signs to babies from the same communities whose parents who were completely unaware of the possibility. Our assessments included standardized tests of verbal language development administered from 11 months to 36 months of age. What did we find? In test after test the children who had signed were more advanced than the non-signers in language skills. The results were published in 2000 in a peer-reviewed professional journal (Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, 2000, 24, 81-103) and for those who would like to read it (or give it to one or more grandparents!), the full text is available at

2. Just as babies learn to crawl before they can walk, using sins gives them a developmentally appropriate way to communicate before they can talk. Once children learn to walk they no longer crawl because of the greater freedom walking affords them. Communication is the same way. While signs are useful before children have words, speech allows them the ability to communicate more quickly and more fully. As a child's mind and body develops, he or she will naturally transition to speaking in order to convey even more complex ideas and longer sentences. Far from getting in the way of the process, signs provide a bridge that helps the transition from no language to spoken language.

3. The experience of signing teaches babies useful lessons about how language works - lessons that speed up the process of learning to talk once words are finally available. By enabling a baby to practice learning and using symbols to label objects, express needs, and describe feelings, signs create a mental framework which makes it easy to incorporate words as soon as the baby's vocal chords are developed enough to use them.

4. The natural reaction to a baby's use of a sign is to 'bathe' the child with words, and the more words a child  hears, the faster he or she will learn to talk. Using signs results in children hearing lots of words and sentences directly relevant to the topic they have chosen. Why? Part of the reason is because we always encourage parents to say the word everytime that they or their baby use a sign. In addition, once a child begins to produce signs on his or her own, parents find themselves responding with words and words and more words. When your baby begins to look at you and sniff for flower while strolling therough the park, you will automatically respond with something like,"Oh, you see the flowers! Yes, those are pretty flowers. We see lots of flowers, don't we?" This exposure to words they care about is exactly what children need in order to learn how to say the words themselves.

5. Every time a baby successfully uses a sign, changes occur in the brain that bring the child closer to mastering language. The circuitry in the brain, upon which talking depends, develop along with a child's experience with language. Because using signs enables childen to begin the process earlier, the development of this cicuitry gets a significant 'jump start' that continues to pay off for years down the line.

These are five very sound arguments. Sometimes,however, the most compelling information of all is the story of Linda's own son's journey to verbal language. Her son, Kai, now grown-up was a great signer. Starting with his first sign at 12 months ('fan'), he built his signing vocabulary to a total of 40 signs by the time he was 19 months old. But, just as many of you may have experienced, words were not coming nearly as fast. In fact, the day he turned 19 months old, he had only  words! But then something 'clicked' (probably neurologically) and in the space of just three weeks, he added 67 new words! Clearly, he knew very well what he wanted to say. The signs had enabled him to learn lots and lots about how lanuage works, what objects are called, etc, and once the final underlying neurological piece was in place, he was off to the races!

So, the next time someones suggests that your encouragement of signs is going to keep your child from talking, just smile and say "Oh, that old wives' tale? No one who knows the research behind the Baby Signs Program is worried about that anymore. Signing is actually the best thing I could be doing to help my baby learn to talk.

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