How Small Children Communicate:
A few weeks ago I spent time with a friend’s 15 month old daughter. She has learned some baby sign language recently, specifically the sign for “done”. What this has translated to is, when she is put into her high chair (and she doesn’t want to be there) she starts signing “done” before throwing everything out of her high chair tray. She is definitely communicating with the adults in the room, before she has the verbal language to tell everyone what she wants.
What is Infant Sign Language?
Infant sign language or baby sign language is not the same as sign language. Unlike ASL, it is simplistic and does not have grammar. Some signs are adapted from ASL. These can be arbitrary where the sign does not mime the action, or iconic where the sign looks like or mimes the action / word.
For example, the sign for drink is iconic. It mimes taking a drink:
The signs for play, hurt and mom are arbitrary. The gesture does not mime the word or action:
Signs can be taught to children from around 8 months to 10 months, at the developmental “gesture stage”. At this stage, children are starting to be able to communicate through gestures, like pointing, but don’t yet have verbal skills. It is easier for babies to learn the iconic signs at this stage. Although signing will supplement communication, it won’t replace speech. Signing and spoken language are meant to develop together.
Advantages of Teaching Infant Sign Language:
The advantages of teaching sign language to babies are many, especially when consulting the extensive parenting websites advocating this practice. Teaching sign language can build richer communication between parents and children, children will have better performance on receptive and expressive verbal language tests, children will improve their communicative, cognitive, social and adaptive behavior and so on. More practically, it could reduce tantrums and frustration over miscommunication between parents and their small children.
The research on the positive impacts of teaching baby sign language is mostly inconclusive. There is similar language development between infants that learn signs and those that don’t. Communication does improve when parents are using spontaneous gesture with their kids, versus using the arbitrary signs taken from ASL, perhaps because children are using more critical thinking skills versus memorization.
Families can also communicate without using formal baby signs, in fact, paying attention to non-verbal cues can help babies learn language just as well. This could be as simple as verbally labeling the things that babies are pointing or looking at, for example, that is a dog, this is a cat. Responding to these attempts at non-verbal communication can help babies develop more vocabulary earlier.
The most interesting comment from research on infant sign language was that it will neither (conclusively) help nor harm your child’s verbal language development. If parents do want to try, the advice is to: start early, introduce naturally, and not get too hung up on proper use of signs.
I will have a baby this summer. When I first learned about infant sign language I thought of it as a way to learn what my baby was thinking and hopefully avoid frustration and temper tantrums. After some research it is clear that baby sign language is a fun way to interact with your child and help to get started with teaching the words for the things in their world. However, visual cues in general are likely just as important, and less formal interactions are just as helpful in the long run. It seems that the benefits from infant sign language are just as likely to come from focused attention from parents on non-verbal cues than teaching the actual signs.
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