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We're expecting our first child and trying to make decisions about what parenting trends to follow. I've been reading about teaching sign language to babies. It seems like the jury is out on whether it actually helps the child develop language abilities, with the majority of research saying that it probably is beneficial.

I'm curious about the emotional benefits of teaching a baby sign language. I admit that I already believe that teaching a baby sign language will make him less frustrated since he'll be able to communicate sooner, and for that reason alone I'll probably want to teach it to him. I haven't been able to find any studies on this topic, though. All I can find is people who claim without citation that it's good for the baby's emotional health. It seems sensible, but I want to be sure about this before we commit to it.

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Seems plausible that being less frustrated = better for one's emotional health. –  DA01 Oct 21 '12 at 20:29
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It will also make you less frustrated since he'll be able to communicate sooner. –  KitFox Oct 21 '12 at 23:55

4 Answers 4

You may be confusing happiness or satisfaction with emotional health, the two are not the same things. Emotional health is another name for mental health, where good is simply the absence of a disorder. What you are really asking is if teaching your child sign language is likely to prevent your child from having mental health problems, the answer to which is almost certainly no, and there are no studies on whether teaching babies sign language is likely to prevent future mental illness.

I think what you're really asking is whether teaching a baby sign language is likely to help your child's development, and there is some research which seems to say there is some minor benefit for some children. The link I included has links to three papers on the subject, but the site is actually a sales site which wants you to buy their baby sign kit so please be aware that is is showing the research in the best possible light. I also have no experience with any products, and would suggest using the myriad of free resources on the web rather than spending any money on baby signing. This link is more balanced and in-depth, and indicates that the benefit is limited in children without disability.

That doesn't mean that it's a bad idea though, far from it. Every child is different, your child may enjoy it and find it empowering, and it may be an enjoyable activity which gets you communicating sooner than you ordinarily would. Or you could have a case like me and my son, where I tried to teach him sign language and he just started speaking instead. I made a fist in my cheek and said apple, then he just said "ab-uh", and that was the end of sign language!

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It's wise of you to question the research from this link. I am surrounded by researchers on linguistics, and they tell me that there is no hard data that shows developmental benefits of using sign language. But they do agree that a child can communicate earlier using sign language, which might be nice for the family. So it boils down to what works best for everybody. –  Ana Oct 22 '12 at 12:40
    
@Ana, completely agree. With no clear evidence it's more of a fun game than anything. –  GdD Oct 22 '12 at 12:49
    
I didn't know that people used "emotional health" and "mental health" interchangeably. But even if I would have said "mental health" in my question, it would still be what I intended to ask. I want to know if using sign language makes the child happier and maybe decreases his frustration in such a way that he will be a happier and less-prone-to-depression adult. Thank you for your second link though (the balanced one). I will read that before making a decision. –  Daniel.J.Shapiro Oct 27 '12 at 14:56

There are all sorts of advantages to teaching your child ASL that especially apply during the first two years of life. These advantages include an average (spoken) vocabularly larger than that of non-signing peers of the same age as well as an even larger vocabulary in sign than their non-signing peers have, earlier and clearer communication development (on average) and even earlier spoken communication (again on average).

The only one of these advantages related at all to emotional well-being, is that they can communicate sooner which means fewer temper tantrums before they can verbally communicate fully.

Research is showing that most advantages to baby sign go away after the child is between two and three years of age - even the signifcant increases in early vocabulary for most kids listed in the first paragraph. The other kids simply catch up sometime between the ages of two and three. However, I still recommend it because it was enriching for all of us during the infant and toddler stages. My daughter was able to tell us her favorite animal was an elephant before she was 16 months!

If you use ASL instead of baby sign and keep it up even after your child is speaking fully, there are a few further advantages that are lasting. For starters, your child has the potential of becoming fluent in ASL and being bi-lingual in this way (a huge andvantage no matter how you slice it - read "The Bilingual Edge" for more details about advantages of multiple languages for kids) but you have to be pretty comitted to it to make this work. If you live in an area where there is a deaf community your child may have access to friends in the community it would be hard for him/her to converse with otherwise - admitedly, there is a smaller liklihood this advantage applies, but worth considering if it does.

To use ASL instead of baby sign. Use videos from the "My Baby Can Sign" and "Signing Times" series instead of other signing videos. You can also use ASLpro.com as a wonderful translating resource.

I'm so sorry I can no longer site sources. I did a lot of reading on the matter about six years ago and though I read multiple studies to back up the information in paragraphs 1-3, I just don't remember what I read. Most of my sources were print sources as well (making it hard to include links), but those facts do come from genuine research and not sales sites. I hope this is helpful anyway.

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Being a mother of twin boys, we taught them ASL signs with an awesome DVD series starting at 2 months. I believe the DVD series was called 'Signing Time'. If anything, it was amazing being able to communicate with them sooner which alleviated many frustrations. It bridged a gap until they could start using their words. When they can't say it, they sign it. And eventually, all of their signs were replaced with words as they make connections to the meanings of words and the wordld around them.

At first, we were skeptical because we went 6 months of watching the DVDs and not being able to see any results. Then one day -- they started signing 'milk', 'more', 'eat', 'diaper' all within a week.

I would say it is a judgement call. I can't speak for the scientific research on the developmental benefits, however, science aside, the pragmatism of the communication benefits outweigh everything else. Communication sooner leads to connections and meanings to the world around them and opens their world. We have averted many frustrations having sign language as a tool and we are so happy we stuck with it.

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Great way to answer the question with specifics even though you had only your personal experience you even make it clear why you are offering the opinion you offer. –  balanced mama Nov 1 '12 at 23:01

I'm currently in the process of learning ASL to teach my upcoming child. Most baby ASL systems are recommending parents learn about 50 words used as one or two word setences, without really any intention of learning full ASL, which has upward of 10,000 signs and a grammar that is as complex as any foreign language. In a world where small things have small results, I would think learning 50 words of a foreign language would have small results in the long term. In the short term, the parenting should be more pleasant and less stressful for the baby.

There is a separate literature on raising bilingual children who learn two languages fully at something close to a native level, i.e. much more than 50 words. Ref this NYT article for a sample of benefits: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html?_r=0

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Just to clarify: are you using actual "American Sign Language" or baby sign language which very much simplified and not standardized (make up your own signs)? –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 2 '12 at 11:26
    
I read the lit about baby sign language (50 words, some non-ASL simplifications, english word order if any word order). My fiance & I've enrolled in Gallaudet's adult ASL class and are learning ASL vocab (at the moment 500-1000 words, ASL word order and facial expression grammatical markers). Like any language learners, our ASL production is heavily influenced by our mother tongues & vastly simplified compared to fluent ASL. Our teacher has given us tips, for example, babies in ASL homes tend to use so called "unmarked ASL" which simplifies hand shapes, omits fingerspell, etc. –  MatthewMartin Nov 2 '12 at 13:48

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