I was in Starbucks this week, and I saw a woman practicing sign language (ASL) with her several-month-old baby. I was certain that I had misunderstood what was going on until a man sitting to her right asked the woman if she was, in fact, teaching her child ASL. He said that he and his wife were talking about starting a family and were wondering if they should introduce sign language to their kids. Another woman close by got into the conversation as well.
I was shocked. I have three kids, but the youngest is 19 ½ and more verbal than is absolutely necessary. I had never heard of exposing children to signing – at least not children without hearing deficit. Was this another West Coast fad? Was this method to help kids, or their parents, avoid frustration? I would ask my East Coast friends with young children if they knew about this.
So, I went home and did what any 21st century person curious about any topic would do: I googled “teaching sign language to babies.” Sure enough, scores of articles came up, all expressing positive results. Some of the articles seemed to be written by good-intentioned parents who are always looking for a way to enrich their children and give them an advantage. But many of the articles were researched and included studies on babies from as early as 3 or 4 months. The babies were able to express their needs which limited their frustrated cries when adults could not understand them. According to these studies, it is critical to teach verbal language as well, so that the signing isn’t substituted for speaking. The children were able to acquire meaningful language more easily than children who were not taught to sign, and some studies even showed an increase in IQ. Of course, the practice and the signs have to be consistent to avoid confusing the baby.
Some people make up their own sign language for their kids, which means there might be less consistency if the child tries to communicate with anyone else. Some preschools and day care centers teach and use signing as well. One example, which I thought useful, was that parents are forced to think about the language they use with their babies. So, instead of saying, “Are you hungry right now? Do you want a little snack, or do want to wait a little while?” (possibly too much for a baby to take in), the caregiver will simplify the query to “eat?” and use the appropriate sign.
I did talk to a couple of my friends in the East. Yes, they did know about it and considered doing it, but they realized, since they worked full-time, that it would probably not be feasible. Of course, in the East (New York area, especially), parents try to give their kids an edge by applying to the very best preschools while the children are still in utero, sometimes enduring very difficult personal interviews at the schools.
What is my now slightly-more-informed opinion about teaching ASL to babies? If it doesn’t harm them, why not? After all, it works for chimpanzees, doesn’t it?