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.

17 Comments

  1. The improper nature of Baby Signs bothered me as well. We don’t use the baby signs that are ‘taught’ in books and online. Chaim, entirely on his own, has chosen to use certain signs. He used to open and close his hands to indicate that he wanted more food, or that he wanted more of the activity we were doing with him. Ever since he started saying “Moe” — his current way of saying “More” — he stopped that sign. He still indicates that he is hungry by pointing into his open mouth and saying “Ahh! Ahh!”

    1. That’s the way you do it — creating Home Sign memes that the family uses to communicate with the baby — because who else is the baby talking to other than the immediate family to express needs? The real world beyond the baby doesn’t speak ASL anyway, so why “teach” Baby Signs that never become useful in everyday communication? That opening and closing of the hand you mention is natural for babies, but the Baby Signer evangelists immediately leap on that action to say the baby is actually signing “milk.” The movie “Meet the Fockers” doesn’t help.

      1. When Chaim wanted milk, he would crawl (and eventually walk) over to Elizabeth and point at her chest. 🙂 Smile!

        I would certainly hope people would not take a slapstick movie like Meet the Fockers and take parenting advice from it! 😮

        1. Love that! The chest-pointing is much more precise and “baby-like” when it comes to expressing a basic need and communicating it clearly. That’s the point of any language learning and that movement is certainly a universally understood concept! SMILE!

          You’d be surprised how many times that baby/milk scene from the Fockers was thrown back in our face by our publisher as “proof” of what they expected us to do in print. As if that scene somehow wasn’t rehearsed and was actually based on real life and not invented for a movie…

  2. When we were asked to write the Baby Signs book, I was a little concerned because I knew what the publisher wanted and it wasn’t really what we wanted as language teachers. As a Deaf woman, I take my native, American Sign Language, seriously — and when that language is broken up into little pieces so babies can use it to entertain their families, it insults me as a person and educator. If you want to teach signs to babies, why not actually give them the full language in the effort? Make it a serious attempt at second language acquisition instead of just a plaything?

    1. Yes, there was certainly a publisher disconnect in the conversations we had about the book. They seemed to have a certain niche they wanted to fill and it had nothing to do with teaching babies actual sign language. I think they were more interested in perceived sales than actual learning. That pitch and negotiation process taught us a lot about maintaining integrity and not giving up who we are just to get a book contract.

  3. This article probably will not go down so well with the Baby Signs industry, but the points you make about ruining one language to create a non-language like Baby Signs is pretty powerful evidence something in wrong with the learning. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  4. Not a parent but I am glad somene else feels the same way I do. There is no evidence to support that baby signs helps kids become smarter. Kids need to open their mouth and talk. Frustration is part of leanring.Besides, i doubt if a 6 -9 month old could learn signs. Babies should be saying a few words by the time they are 18-20 months and not signing. It disturbe me when I read 2 yr olds are signing. What next? Hijacking Braille to teach them ‘reading’ ghees.

  5. YW I am reading a debate on another forum about this. My comment was aroud the same as my comment and I get slammed lol though a few may agree. Sign langauge is for HEARING IMPAIRED/MUTE. One found my psoiton ot be ‘ignoratn’. Sorry it is you who are taking something and using it for another purpsoe.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You’re right that Hearing people learn ASL so they can communicate with Deaf People — and not with each other, and certainly not their Hearing babies!

      BTW, we don’t use “mute” or even “hearing-impaired” any longer because they are negative terms. We now use “Deaf” or “Deaf and does not speak” or “Hard of hearing.”

      Keep up the good fight!

  6. This needs to be taken off the shelves. Signs seem to be more for bragging rights and attention. Videos are all over You Tube saying Hey look a my cute baby signing. One claimed her 3 month old was signing in the clip. One commenter on the board tried to throw up straw man arguments when I said our parents didn’t use or need such things. Yes baby seats weren’t around in our grandparent’s day, but that’s a whole different matter. We didn’t have internet and cell phones either but no one claimed they made anyone smarter. It is just a communcition tool. There were smart people long before baby sign langauge and the internet. I pointed out there is a difference in learning new things and hijacking something for differnt purposes. For example, learning new Spanish words isn’t hijacking. It is so you can communicate with non-English speaking people. I’m suprised none of them have come to this blog.

    P.S. It is hard to know what terms are correct these days. I know people still say ‘retarded’ in reference to stupidity. I correct when possible.

    1. Your defense of ASL as a language is both appreciated and necessary! Thank you!

      I know terms change — that’s why it’s always good to share what we know to help each other out. “Retarded” is pretty much only a street insult now. In purely clinical terms, it appears the trend is to replace “retarded” with “Full-Spectrum Autism” — though don’t mention that to any parents of Autistic children.

  7. And I really can’t understand parents these days. They are alwaya looking for all kinds of short cuts and companies know it. There’s the diaperless baby thing, scheduled feeding craze, Baby Einstein and the list goes on. As I say I am not a parent. Our parents excepted the fact they signed on to be parents. Kid frustration, disrupted schedules, and fussy babies were part of it. Heck I get frustrated with things.

    1. I think you’re right on target! These “genius” babies then grow up feeling entitled and self-righteous when, in reality, many of them are ordinary and unable to perform up to the fantasy expectations of their parents. Those sorts of children are difficult to teach in a mainstream setting because they are all about their center and the self and not sharing or working in mind teams.

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