Polly & baby signing

When Polly was a mere four months old, I took her to baby signing classes, via Babies Can Sign. Part of me wonders now why on earth I took her so early – she couldn’t even sit unsupported at the time. By the end of the program of ten classes, she was just about signing for “milk”, but not particularly consistently. I signed up again – for the same Babies Can Sign 1 class, not the next level for bigger babies. The main reason I signed up again was so she could continue to play with other babies – not necessarily because I thought she’d pick any more up. I was pretty convinced she’d be talking before she was signing anyway.

How wrong I was! She seems to have suddenly picked up loads.

It was a sudden change – although she’d been consistently signing “music” for a while, other signs were either absent or inconsistent. The sign for “music” is like conducting an orchestra, so for a musical babe like Polly it must have felt quite natural. The sign for “milk” is less so. When she suddenly started properly, consistently and insistently signing “milk”, it was a big change. Most importantly, to a baby there isn’t much of a logical link between the sign for “milk” (hold your open dominant hand sideways, and close/open/close/open – in theory like milking a cow) and actual drinking of it – so it’s clearly learned.

It’s too early to tell whether signing has had any impact on her speech acquisition, though she seems to either speak a word or sign it, never both at the same time. Baby signing is based on BSL, but with spoken language order, which means any BSL grammar is lost – you speak as normal, but sign relevant words as you say them.

She’s now signing and talking quite a lot, and it’s added such value to her attempts to communicate. For example, once while sat in the living room in her high chair, her daddy came in from work, but quickly then went to get changed. She pointed backwards to the door while saying “hiya”, then made the sign for “all gone” and made a sad noise. A fantastic sentence I think! “My daddy came in over there, I said hello, then he went away and I am not happy about it!”

More recently, she has gone towards the kitchen, stopped, and signed for lights going on and off, to signal that she wants to go into the kitchen but she can’t because it’s too dark.

So many words you’d like your baby to learn are very similar at the start of language acquisition. For a start, just think of how many start with a B – baby, ball, bath, balloon, bubble, bed, book, blanket, bear, bowl, biscuit – the signs can make it much more likely that you’ll understand which is being communicated.

Easier communication, less frustration, happier baby, happier everyone all round :)

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6 Responses to Polly & baby signing

  1. Matt says:

    Do you know if there are any studies into how much Baby Signing helps language acquisition, and or learning BSL or similar later on in life? Presumably if they remember the signs they are quite a big step closer to understanding BSL? Also, by the sounds of it, Polly picked up signing before speaking, is this common?

    • Lucy says:

      I have studies into links between baby signing & language acquisition. Not so much BSL acquisition but I can look into it.

      BabySign.co.uk believes “it has been proven that signing babies have a significantly wider spoken vocabulary at age 2 than their non signing peers”

      Acredolo and Goodwyn (2002) and Rowe (2008) seem to back this up, discussing “well-designed, government-funded research” which showed that “Baby Signers on average knew about fifty more real words than their nonsigning peers by the age of two”/ children with a larger gesture repertoire at 19 months came to have larger oral vocabularies at 24 months (respectively) – A&G found signing infants to be approximately one year ahead of peers with regards to vocabulary, around the age of three.

      Rowe’s 2008 study also videotaped children once a month between 10 & 24 months of age, finding that infants acquired a word for an object roughly 3 months after learning the sign for it. (Suggesting that sign breeds word. Vaguely.)

      There’s also an argument (mainly by Reich in 1986 but also A&G) that “the onset of speech probably relates more to the maturation of the nerves and muscles needed for speech than to success at communicating by pointing”.
      A&G feel more that learning gestures will ‘exercise’ the neural abilities deemed necessary: “[t]he more often a child encounters thought-provoking objects, events, and problems, the more [neural] connections get made and strengthened”, creating a “sophisticated circuitry”.

      This is all very wordy, I’m sorry. I’m paraphrasing from something I studied & wrote in 2009.

      In that, I tried to make a point about concreteness of referent, and how baby sign can help kids communicate abstract concepts earlier than their non-signing peers but it wasn’t very easy to back up: yes there exist signs for “I love you”, “more”, etc, but “thank you” and “where” are very early-acquired (as words), so I’m not sure if I’m right.

      Eve Clark (one of my favourites on language acquisition) makes an important point: baby signing must be accompanied by talk, so that the child learns both the sign and the word that they will later need to use (or risk “detrimental effects” on their oral language acquisition). This suggests a disconnect with BSL.

      I finished on the point that baby sign alone cannot be deemed responsible for earlier language acquisition. Environmental factors need to be taken into account – particularly the tendency for baby signing parents to be of a particular socioeconomic background, and far more likely to orally communicate with their children from a younger age (these two factors not necessarily being interlinked).

      If this answered absolutely none of your questions, I apologise.

      Studies:
      Reich, Peter. 1986. Language Development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
      Rowe, Meredith L., Seyda Özçaliskan and Susan Goldin-Meadow. 2008. Learning words by hand: Gesture’s role in predicting vocabulary development. First Language. 28 (2): 182-199.
      Acredolo, Linda P. and Susan Goodwyn. 2002. Baby signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. New York: McGraw Hill.

      • impeus says:

        I’d echo the point about the disconnect with BSL. While baby signing uses signs from BSL (or other sign languages where more age appropriate) it is always alongside the spoken language. The signs are a reinforcement or enhancement to the spoken language, not a separate language.

        Polly is now signing and speaking at the same time for some words. For example her vocalizations for “bath” and “bear” are almost indistinguishable. If it wasn’t for the sign accompaniments it would be difficult to tell what she means sometimes.

        To be entirely honest I’m not sure if speech or signs came first. Lucy, any thoughts? Neal says signing but isn’t completely sure. The sign for music came first but is that just a natural response rather than a learned representation?

        • Lucy says:

          Yeah, sign for music came first, but her development there is difficult to track given the varied avenues of input for that particular sign.

          Words technically came first though. She could say a form of “hello” and “hungry” before you even seriously considered baby signing, couldn’t she?

          Word came first with:
          baby, mummy (& dadadad when she said it), LEGO, bath … (of which, only one now has a sign)

          Sign came first with:
          music, milk, others I’m sure but my head isn’t working … (of which, no words yet that I know of?)

          • impeus says:

            I’m not sure hungry was real.

            Interesting how she mostly still only either signs or says a word. Baby, bear and bubbles are the only ones I can think where she does both.

  2. Pingback: Advent calendar: 7. Polly is thirteen months old | impeus.com

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