Thursday, April 15, 2010

But Won't Signing Discourage my Baby from Talking?

A Common MYTH answered by Linda Acredolo, Ph.D. and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D.

By far the most frequently voiced concern about encouraging babies to communicate
with signs is that doing so will discourage them from learning to talk. In fact, we often
refer to this belief as the “Mother-in-Law” myth because we so often hear it voiced by
moms in the following way:

‘My mother-in-law says, “If he gets what he wants without using words,
he’ll never learn to talk.” What should I tell her?’

Well, here is what we tell them:
1. Well-designed, government-funded research has shown that the opposite is true. Using
a large grant from the National Institutes of Health, we carefully compared babies
whose parents encouraged them to use signs to babies from the same communities
whose parents who were completely unaware of the possibility. Our assessments
included standardized tests of verbal language development administered from 11
months to 36 months of age. What did we find? In test after test the children who had
signed were more advanced than the non-signers in language skills. The results were
published in 2000 in a peer-reviewed professional journal (Journal of Nonverbal
Behavior, 2000, 24, 81-103), and for those who would like to read it (or give it to
their mother-in-law!), the full text is available on our Baby Signs® web site
2. Just as babies learn to crawl before they can walk, using signs gives them a
developmentally appropriate way to communicate before they can talk. Once children
learn to walk they no longer crawl because of the greater freedom walking affords
them. Communication is the same way. While signs are useful before children have
words, speech allows them the ability to communicate more quickly and more fully.
As a child’s mind and body develops, he or she will naturally transition to speaking in
order to convey ever more complex ideas and longer sentences. Far from getting in
the way of the process, signs provide a bridge that helps the transition from no
language to spoken language.
3. The experience of signing teaches babies useful lessons about how language works--
lessons that speed up the process of learning to talk once words are finally available.
By enabling a baby to practice learning and using symbols to label objects, express
needs, and describe feelings, signs create a mental framework which makes it easy to incorporate words as soon as the baby’s vocal cords are developed enough to use
4. The natural reaction to a baby’s use of a sign is to “bathe” the child with words, and
the more words a child hears, the faster he or she will learn to talk. Using signs results
in children hearing lots of words and sentences directly relevant to the topic they have
chosen. Why? Part of the reason is because we always encourage parents to say the
word every time that they or their baby use a sign. In addition, once a child begins to
produce signs on his or her own, parents find themselves responding with words and
words and more words. When your baby begins to look at you and sniff for flower
while strolling through the park, you will automatically respond with something like,
“Oh, you see the flowers! Yes, those are pretty flowers. We see lots of flowers, don’t
we?” This exposure to words they care about is exactly what children need in order to
learn how to say the words themselves.

5. Every time a baby successfully uses a sign, changes occur in the brain that bring the
child closer to mastering language. The circuitry in the brain--upon which talking
depends--develops along with a child’s experience with language. Because using
signs enables children to begin the process earlier, the development of this circuitry
gets a significant “jump start” that continues to pay off for years down the line.
These are five very sound arguments. Sometimes, however, the most compelling
information of all is the story of Linda's own son's journey to verbal language. Her son
Kai, now a college student, was a great signer. Starting with his first sign at 12 months
("fan"), he built his signing vocabulary to a total of 40 signs by the time he was 19
months old. But, just as many of you may have experienced, words were not coming
nearly as fast. In fact, the day he turned 19 months old, he had only 7 words! But then
something "clicked" (probably neurologically) and in the space of just three weeks, he
added 67 new words! Clearly, he knew very well what he wanted to say. The signs had
enabled him to learn lots and lots about how language works, what objects are called, etc,
and once the final underlying neurological piece was in place, he was off to the races!
So, the next time someone suggests that your encouragement of signs is going to keep
your child from talking, just smile and say “Oh, that old wive’s tale?” (We suggest you
don’t mention Mothers-in-Laws yourself!) “No one who knows the research behind the
Baby Signs® Program is worried about that anymore. Signing is actually the best thing I
could be doing to help my baby learn to talk.”
Good luck – and HAPPY SIGNING!