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Adventures in Baby Sign, Part 1

So our baby is 6 months old, and we’re about to start using baby sign language, which I view with some trepidation — oh, great, another language to stumble around in. On the other hand, kids don’t seem to develop very big repertoires of signs, so even though I’m sleep-deprived and distracted, I think I can remember two dozen signs. More. Eat. Drink. Cat. Dog. Thank you. Please. Outside.

This decision is pretty representative of the decisions we’ve made overall. In an interesting scholarly paper analyzing some hearing families who use baby sign, the authors (Pizer, Walters, Meier) write that “baby signing fits neatly into the parenting ideologies prevalent in the professional class in the United States. These ideologies value early communication with infants and promote the adaptation of the physical, social, and linguistic environment to their perceived needs.” Yes, that’s us. Professional class; adapt the environment to the infant’s needs; promote early communication.

One of my favorite books to read in preparation for parenthood was David Lancy’s <a href="The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings“>, a vast (and very readable) cross-cultural and historical account of the cultural meanings of various stages of parenthood and childhood. There (and on his website, here) he lays out two broad models for when cultures decide that children should be socialized. One model he calls “pick when ripe,” which is used in societies where babies and toddlers are largely ignored, may not be named until they’re weaned, and undertake what he calls a “village curriculum” — that is, not a formal education, but running errands, running messages, and doing small-scale versions of adult tasks. The other model, indicative of industrialized societies (Europe, Japan, the US), he calls “pick when green.” In that model, it’s never too early to socialize babies. Teaching signs to babies for use is pure “pick when ripe.”

To be clear, we’re not just teaching him how to say what he wants, which will supposedly make our lives easier, we’re socializing him.

–We’re socializing him into the notion that children’s self-expressions are significant in some fashion — too significant to be merely guessed at or ignored

–We’re teaching him that children can have opportunities to display knowledge as soon as possible (and in fact, one of his roles already is to put on display what he can do; his “tricks”)

–We’re promoting socially appropriate behavior

–and we’re promoting how to make one topic of communication the communication itself, which is what you get in a family with two highly verbal people.

–We’re socializing him in how people interact with each other, at a more basic level (like how we take one-at-a-time turns when talking), as well as what are the platforms for further interaction.

It is not, I’ll admit, about promoting an awareness of Deaf culture, or even building the start of basic fluency in American Sign Language, and I see that websites on baby signing promote this as a plus, including this dubious claim: “Should your baby continue to learn American Sign Language past his or her 3rd year, s/he will have acquired a 2nd or even 3rd language!” I mean, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic, so I’ll be posting more on this, including a summary of the research that evaluates the claims that teaching babies sign makes them smarter and verbally more precocious, and maybe I’ll dig into some work from Australia about the predictors of verbal precocity.