Baby sign language refers to the use of a signed language with preverbal babies. Using sign language with babies is nothing new. Parents, siblings, and other caregivers have always communicated with preverbal child using hand motions, gestures, and facial expressions. After a study in 1989 by Linda Acredolo, PhD, and Susan Goodwyn, PhD, however, a larger interest in baby sign language developed. Since the 1990s and continuing through today, a number of books have been published exhorting the benefits of teaching a baby sign language. As a linguist, I personally am very interested in the benefits that sign language offers my daughter.
The first advantage to teaching a baby a signed language is the potential for increased communication. From birth, babies are learning about the world around them including the language they are exposed to. Long before a baby can talk, he or she can understand a lot of language, both spoken and signed. Many parents and babies alike have become frustrated by a communication breakdown simply because a child has not fully developed the ability to speak. Furthermore, because the muscles in the hands develop before the muscles in the mouth, children are able to sign before being able to speak. Therefore, a child who is equipped with a signed language has a communicative advantage over a child who has only a spoken language.
There persists a myth that exposing a child to a signed language will result in speech delays. The opposite is actually true. Babies who have been taught sign language from birth or shortly after birth often reach recommended milestones for spoken language before non-signing babies. Signing babies also acquire larger vocabularies before non-signing babies. Babies who learn a signed language are also able to express more complex thoughts earlier than babies who acquire only a spoken language. Exposure to language, whether spoken or signed, spurs language acquisition.
Being taught baby sign language also benefits children as they grow older. Acredolo and Goodwyn discovered that signing children scored ten to twelve points higher on average on IQ tests at age eight than non-signing children. Learning a signed language from birth therefore not only benefits language acquisition but improves cognitive ability in general. Furthermore, signing children showed an increased knowledge and awareness of the English language than non-signing children, most likely the result of the increased exposure to language in general.
Exposing a preverbal baby to sign language is beneficial for a number of reasons. Not only do signing babies acquire spoken language sooner than non-signing babies, but children who learn a signed language from birth or shortly after birth continue to experience advantages into childhood.
See the Baby Sign Language Dictionary for descriptions of some common signs from American Sign Language used in baby sign language.
Beyer, Monica. 2006. Baby talk: A guide to using basic sign language to communicate with your baby. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Jarvis, Jane. 2008. Teach yourself baby signing. London: Hodder Education.
Porpora, Tracey. 2011. The complete guide to baby sign language: 101 trips and tricks every parent needs to know. Ocala, FL: Atlantic Publishing Group, Inc.
Warburton, Karyn. 2004. Baby sign language for hearing babies. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group.