Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Does Using Baby Sign Language Really Facilitate Verbal Language Development?

For well over a year I have been reading about the many benefits of using baby sign language with your child. They include giving your pre-verbal child tools to communicate more effectively, making it easier to learn to talk, increasing vocabulary, strengthening the parent-child bond and even increasing IQ. I've seen these claims on baby signing websites, on blogs, in books and in classes. And I believe all the claims. Between signing and talking Nate can communicate about fifty words. Maybe I'm wrong, but that seems like a lot at almost fourteen months. And I am sure he understands much more. And because we know that we can understand each other, we feel more connected and therefore closer. It all makes sense to me.

But I've been wondering - is there any science behind these claims? Any research? And I finally discovered that the answer is yes, there is - there has been long term, federally funded research. Here are the three studies/papers I found:
I have to confess that I have not fully read all of the papers. With Nate sick and not sleeping, I have barely had time to shower, much less read everything I want to read. But there is a section in the first paper that explains why symbolic gesturing facilitates the early stages of verbal language development that I wanted to share. I find the "why" especially interesting.  Here's a summary:

Increases in infant-directed speech - It is well documented that the amount of speech directed at a child affects the rate at which the child acquires language. The use of a symbolic gesture (a sign) and early infant words "pulls" speech from the parent as they acknowledge the infant's communication and even elaborate on it. The example given is: "Birdie? That's right! That is a birdie! Oh, there it goes flying away. Bye-bye birdie!" Because infants can acquire signs at an earlier rate than they can speak, the caregiver will be responding earlier as well. "In other words, a 14-month-old with a 10 word and 10 symbolic gesture vocabulary can elicit caregiver responses to twice as many different things as he or she could without the additional gestural symbols."

Nate signs AIRPLANE at twelve months

Topic selection - Another "factor known to contribute to faster rates of language development is the degree to which the infant or toddler, rather than the parent, controls the topic around which joint attention episodes are organized." Just like adults, infants are more likely to pay attention and learn about things in which they are genuinely interested.

The power of  "scaffolding" - The term "scaffolding" refers to "guidance provided by adults that narrows the gap between a child’s level of ability and the demands of a complex task (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976)." An example of this would be when a parent helps a child with a shape sorting game by placing the shape near the corresponding cutout. The authors of the paper suggest that teaching symbolic gestures (here, baby sign) is a form of scaffolding. The complex task of learning words is made easier by bringing the task to the child's ability level - using gestures. This knowledge then increases the motivation of the toddler to learn all forms of communication, including verbal - just as crawling increases the baby's interest in walking.

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Want more information on signing with your baby? Check out my baby sign language page HERE.
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