There's A Huge Market Around 'Baby Sign Language,' But Little Research On Its Effectiveness


This Friday, Oct. 8, 2010 photo shows Haley Smith, 20-months-old, as she practices her sign language at Malena's Mini School in Pensacola, Fla. Sign language has long been a technique for psychologists working with very young children, but parents have r

This Friday, Oct. 8, 2010 photo shows Haley Smith, 20-months-old, as she practices her sign language at Malena's Mini School in Pensacola, Fla. Sign language has long been a technique for psychologists working with very young children, but parents have recently embraced the practice with special classes, books, DVDs and online programs. (Melissa Nelson/AP)

If you’re a new parent trying to communicate with your infant, you may have given baby sign language a try: specialized gestures babies can learn to communicate words like “hungry,” “thirsty” and “more.”

There’s a huge market for books, classes and smartphone apps that teach baby sign language and claim that it can speed up spoken language development — and even boost a baby’s IQ. But there’s not very much research to support those claims.

So is teaching your baby to sign worthwhile and effective? Gwen Dewar (@ParentingSci), an evolutionary anthropologist and author of the website Parenting Science, says it depends.

“I think that it’s possible to teach babies to sign, and it can be a valuable activity for parents to engage in with their babies. They can tune into them and have fun just like any kind of activity that’s a learning activity that you can do with your child,” she tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson. “The question is, is this going to make your baby a better language expert? And on that score, actually, there’s really no evidence that it’s going to help.”

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Interview Highlights

On whether babies can understand the concepts needed to sign specific phrases like, “I want more milk,” even if they can’t say them verbally yet

“Well yes they can. But I should point out that babies are already engaging in spontaneous gestures. You don’t necessarily need to teach your baby an abstract sign in order to communicate about things like that. That’s the thing I want to get across, is I think, if we’re talking about baby sign language and we think it’s a program where they import a bunch of official signs where there’s an arbitrary connection between the sign and the meaning, that could be a fun thing to do. But [it’s] not is if that’s going to be something that’s going to allow the babies to learn especially fast. Whereas if you focus on those transparent signs and the ones that your baby already uses, that could be really valuable.”

On whether she agrees with the Mayo Clinic, which says there is limited research to suggest baby sign language might give a typically developing child a way to communicate several months earlier than those who only use verbal communication

“I would have to say that is very limited, and it’s better to just say we don’t know. The kind of research that we have on that are small studies of infants who are being taught to sign by parents who are deaf, and use sign language as their regular language, and then they would look at the babies and at what point did they start babbling with their hands, and when they start saying their first words. If you look at research like that, those studies really fall within the bounds of what we see with verbal studies of when babies first start babbling verbally and speaking their first words.”

On if parents are wasting their money when they invest in apps and classes to teach them and their babies sign language

“I think it depends on your goals. To me, what’s really interesting about the research is other research that’s not about teaching baby sign language, but about observing real parents who use gestures in a really effective way. They look at what babies are pointing at, they use pantomime. Parents who do that have what is called referential transparency, meaning that you are easy to decipher.

“If you think about it, if you were a person who went off to some country where you didn’t happen to speak the language, and they didn’t speak your language, you would really want to talk to people who are very good at miming and reading natural gestures. There have been studies done showing that parents who have that quality actually have babies that do acquire language faster and do seem to have advantages. So I think gesturing is very good and very effective, it’s just the question is, do you need to do kind of a formal program that teaches babies abstract signs, which are harder to learn?”

On the best ways for people to communicate with babies

“I think actually we know a lot about the best ways to communicate with babies: You need to make eye contact with your baby when you’re talking, studies show that when you do that, part of the brain that tunes in with communication is more likely to turn on. Engage in conversations with your baby. Even though your baby can’t speak, you communicate as if your baby is able to do that and you interpret her looks and her gestures, and when parents do that, when they tune into the mind of the baby and really try to imagine themselves in the baby’s perspective, research shows that when you do that, babies learn things really fast.

“There’s something called mind-minded parenting, and that simply realizing from the very beginning when your baby is born that this is an autonomous being who has a mind, and is intelligent and not just an object that needs care. And so when parents start out with just assuming that their babies have independent minds, that’s really the key — it’s really pretty simple.”

Savannah Maher produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

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