Five years or so ago, the Baby Signs movement was in full bowel, with mommies everywhere clamoring to get their babies “signing” their first words instead of verbalizing sounds. ”Baby Signs,” the theory still goes today, “is a prime key to early intellectualization and language acquisition for babies.” The problem with that notion is that Baby Signs do not teach a language — Baby Signs only destroys an established language by infantilization and misuse and ego projection — and I’ve never seen any convincing, quantifiable, evidence that Baby Signs actually does a baby any good. Oh, Baby Signing is great for mommy because it makes her feel fulfilled and that she’s given birth to a genius-child-by-inference using imagined visual glossing, but Baby Signs does nothing significant at all for the baby because the intention is to never actually teach the baby American Sign Language. The intention of Baby Signs is to improperly use ASL HandShapes out of context to bridge the baby into spoken English.
Several years ago, Janna and I were invited to join the Baby Signs movement and write a book for a major, stupid, mainstream, publisher. Together, Janna and I have over 60 years of teaching ASL, and we have helped create systems for learning American Sign Language at the university level. In the end, we could not come to a final agreement with the publisher because we believe American Sign Language is an important, historic, language than has been dumbed down for babies and abused by the Hearing in order to sell mommies a false notion that their infants are actually “saying something” in sign that leads to proper language acquisition. We wanted to write a book that included some basic ASL vocabulary signs that would also lead to actual mastery of ASL as the primary intention — but our publisher insisted on us teaching a few, nominal, ordinary signs and HandShapes that would be stitched together by us for the mommy to help her make her baby make English sentences using American Sign Language visual memes.
Do you see the learning disconnect in that ill-conceived notion of what ASL is as a language and how it needs to be used in the proper context? ASL was invented as a language for the Deaf; not as a way to entertain mommy with baby hands mimicry. Is there room in the publishing marketplace for a serious Baby Signs book? Perhaps, but it must have a different title, and intention, in order to be fully effective. Our Bad Baby Signs book idea was based on our bad experience with mainstream Baby Signs book publishers.
In order to actually acquire a language — any language — understanding of grammar and syntax needs to be a part of the sentence construction as one idea leads into the next to create meaning and understanding. The purpose of Baby Signs is not to teach ASL, but rather to only steal the visual bits of vocabulary from the language to bridge the baby into making English sentences with thefted ASL concepts. That teaching intention is both wrong for mommy and damaging to baby; and while Hearing babies verbally babble and Deaf babies hand babble, there is still an innate structure in place that begins the proper pathway to language acquisition that eventually stops for Hearing babies as soon as they are able to verbalize English vowels and consonants. The Baby Signs are left behind as a learning crutch to be discarded along with the baby wipes.
Is there a Baby French or Baby Spanish movement afoot that matches the intensity of Baby Signs? Not really, because those spoken languages rely on verbalization so there’s no advantage to stealing basic, foreign, vocabulary. It’s just as easy to teach a baby English pronunciation as it is a German one. ASL is definitely a foreign language, but Baby Signs does not respect that consequential fact.
For those who argue that Baby Signs allow a baby to express needs and wants long before verbalization is possible, I would argue that home signs — signs made up between mommy and baby — have been around forever and they serve a limited use for understanding in a specific context that neither infantilizes or disparages an established language in order to pretend to confer comprehension where it cannot exist. The Baby Signing movement was never about American Sign Language, it was all about making mommy feel better about the intellectual capacity of her struggling infant, and in that process of stealing one language to feed another, an entire ego movement without the id was born just to be discarded with the first verbalized “mama” — and that is the great shame and legacy of the “Baby Signs” non-theory of language acquisition.