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It may be easier for infants to communicate in a visual method such as sign language as opposed to spoken language, but what difference, if any, is made in the long term? Teaching typically developing infants to sign as an aid has been known to be success

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From the earliest moments of a baby’s life, it is common for parents to want the best for their child. On the contrary, there are the parents who want their babies to be the best. In the 1981 book, The Hurried Child, author Dr. David Elkind warns that children were being asked to grow up too fast. This was the premise of the book, the fact that parents were pushing their children too far, and too fast. Dr. Elkind’s book became an instant classic, and it seems that recently the trend of “super babies” has only intensified (The Hurried Infant). There are various studies, theories, trends, products, and techniques aiming to expand the powers and abilities of the infant brain. The popular trend of brain enrichment practices for infants can be linked back approximately 15 years ago, when the parenting community started to learn about something called the “Mozart Effect” (Mitchell 28:3-4). The “Mozart Effect” was a conclusion of one study of college students who had listened to ten minutes of a Mozart sonata before taking a test, and appeared to score slightly higher marks in doing so (Mitchell 28:3-4). Through this conclusion, parents were encouraged to play classical music for their babies, to help enhance spatial-reasoning and memory. The “Mozart Effect” was controversial, as there were many attempts to replicate the results of the original test, but most were unsuccessful. Another controversial topic was the claim of a “window of learning” for infants. Scientists once believed that there was a window of opportunity from when a child is born until about the age of three, to learn certain skills and abilities proficiently. It was also believed that a child’s brain is fully developed by birth, and although most of the brain's cells are formed before birth, most of the connections among cells are actually made during early childhood (O’Connell). Recently, researchers have begun to recommend that normally developing infants be taught sign language within the first two years of life (Garcia). This recommendation is backed up by research that claims infants can obtain sign language earlier than spoken language. It’s claimed that learning sign language will promote the development of vocal language, as opposed to hindering it; a theory brought to popularity by the publication of Baby Signs (Goodwyn, Acredolo, & Brown). It may be easier for infants to communicate in a visual method such as sign language as opposed to spoken language, but what difference, if any, is made in the long term? Teaching typically developing infants to sign as an aid has been known to be successful in stimulating the brain and promoting language abilities, however due to a lack of consistent evidence, the misuse of brain science, and the trending “edutainment” industry, the actual importance and effectiveness has been misrepresented and exaggerated.

It is claimed by linguists, including Noam Chomsky that humans are born into the world with a natural knowledge of language referred to as the “language faculty”. According to Chomsky (p.13), this language faculty is seen as a biological system in the brain that “has an initial state which is genetically determined, like. . . the kidney, the circulatory system, and so on." In theory, the ideas of promoting language through teaching infants sign language seems legitimate, but are the results worth the time and effort? According to Stephen Pinker (p.15), everyone demonstrates very complex linguistic abilities, regardless of class or education level. So by stimulating an infant through sign language, are you simply “unlocking” these complex linguistic abilities early or are they actually being taught and understood? The thought of an infant being able to sign that they are tired or hungry as opposed to just crying is very fascinating, however can be unrealistic. There are advantages to teaching typically developing infants to sign, but there are can also be drawbacks both for signing and the way an infant may be taught to sign. One of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of a uniform language. There are various methods that are used to teach sign language to babies from American Sign Language, to commercial programs such as Baby Signs, or custom created signs. Without a uniform language, different signs can easily confuse infants. American Sign Language is made more “baby friendly” by commercial programs, leading to a more limited and disorganized language. Since language is a complex rule-governed system of sounds and words (CS212OC M1,L1, F, 2011), it is recommended that infants be taught proper ASL as an aid as opposed to a simplified system of gestures. Another major drawback is the lack of universal knowledge. While any sort of sign language can work very well between the infant and family or parents, the child will have no ability to communicate outside of that system. If you teach a child to speak a language, only other speakers of that same language will be able to understand them, same idea goes for sign language. If the child is in someone else’s care, they will not be able to effectively communicate, leading to frustration and even aggravation for the child. Lastly, there is controversial issue of delayed speech. Although there are conflicting reports regarding this, it is said that children who have a large vocabulary in sign language, may not be as inclined to speak unless signs are used in conjunction with words. Co-author Linda Acredolo, of Baby Signs, claims that parents who sign with their children must also use spoken language, to help with the child’s verbal ability. Linda Acredolo is also a psychologist, and several of her studies have shown that although sign language is often adequate to aid in communication on its own, when used in conjunction with speech, children are able to comprehend more proficiently. It is claimed that if this is followed, children with knowledge of signs may have better verbal and language capabilities than non-signing children. This is because signing children are able to obtain an earlier understanding of language, and it’s purpose. They then use this understanding and knowledge of language as to their advantage, when they are physically able to speak.

Baby signing is very different from true forms of sign language, which involve complex linguistics. Sign language resembles spoken language in every major aspect, proving the universality amongst languages (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams). A major issue of concern is that findings from studies of deaf children learning sign language cannot be extrapolated to hearing children learning baby sign language, which has been done by supporters of baby sign language (Doherty-Sneddon). A concrete example of this takes place on the website for a baby signing product (www.babysigners.co.uk), in which they claim “increased brain activity” through a citation of a neuroimaging study of deaf adult native signers of ASL (Doherty-Sneddon). There are several different claims and stances regarding baby signing, and a major problem with this conflict is that not all claims made by companies can be linked to proper research. In the case of baby signing, it seems that a lot of the claims made by supporters, are based an anecdotal evidence and unscientific exaggerations. Gary Morgan, a researcher into the language development of deaf children, claims that although baby signing is a good activity to engage in with your child, it is no more stimulating than an activity such as hide-and-seek (Doherty-Sneddon). He goes on to claim that since there is no research proving the effectiveness of other types of stimulation, there is no evidence that teaching infants to sign enables better language and intellectual development. Finally, he claims that children certainly enjoy using signs, but that the children were being taught gestures as opposed to language (Doherty-Sneddon). Any sort of gesture can be considered an enhancement in communication, and might aid with later language development. Tyron Woolfe, a deaf developmental psychologist claims that (in relation to baby signing) “any advance was only temporary and there were no significant improvements in behaviour.” He believes that baby signing is just a fad for hearing babies, as it is dropped as soon as speech begins (Doherty-Sneddon). It’s emphasized by Doherty-Sneddon, that the main objective of baby signing should be to aid with the early years of a child’s life, as opposed to speeding up development in an attempt to create a “super baby.” One interesting study, discussed in The Hurried Infant, is one that compares children in academic pre-schools to children in play-based pre-schools. This study shows that the academic pre school children learned to read an average of a year earlier than the other children, although they did catch up. The most interesting fact however, is that on average children in the play-based pre-school, enjoyed reading a lot more than the other children.

The trend toward teaching typically developing infants has recently blown up, in an attempt to intellectualize children at a very young age. In the past decade, the brain claims have increased, further being fuelled by commercial powers. This has an impact on the business world, as the recent trends have some parents falling into the hype of educational programs and products geared towards young children. It is brain science that is fuelling the multi-billion dollar educational market, also known as edutainment, with product names like: Baby Genius, Brainy Baby, Baby Einstein, and Jumpstart Baby (O’Connell). It has been noted through studies that the brain of an infant is a powerful tool that can be enhanced through proper stimulus. It is the growth of edutainment products has pressured parents into questioning if their baby is as smart as smart can be, and if they are doing enough to ensure that. Some of the products make claims to enhance early brain development, and others claim to speed up and promote verbal development. However, scholarly research and empirical studies have shown conflicting and inconsistent evidence regarding these claims (O’Connell). It is apparent that the business world is using inconsistent evidence through mass media and science to not only capitalize, but profit off of bits and pieces of information extrapolated from different studies. An alarming issue with the baby sign edutainment trend is that the actual deaf community does not benefit in any way, and the argument could be made that they are negatively impacted. You would assume that with all of the available products and programs, the actual deaf/ASL community would be involved somehow. The deaf/ASL community should be the ones as the trainers, the authors, and the models in the books and videos. It is almost as if the language was hijacked from the deaf/signing community, strictly for commercial purposes. It is the corporations who have come up with the products and copyrights, and they are the ones that will profit heavily. There is no evidence that any profits from these programs are being donated to organizations that support deaf or ASL communities.  

In our current day and age, parents are flooded with advice on how to raise their children, from government and health agencies, scientists, the media, and even other parents. There are so many different theories and claims within the parenting community, which the baby-signing trend is only a small part of. The problem with this trend, as previously stated, is the fact that not all of the claims and advice are made on concrete scientific research and findings. Goherty-Snodden, claims that there are three levels of support for baby signing. The first level includes indicative, strong evidence from research in terms of benefits. The second level includes related evidence from deaf sign and hearing gesture/language research. The last level of support is anecdotal evidence from families involved with baby signing. This might be enough evidence to convince parents, but far from being proven scientifically. Do the benefits of baby signing justify the amount of time and effort that must be invested by a parent? Is the infant being taught in an effort to speed up development or as an aid in early communication? The edutainment market has taken advantage of this trend, because they understand that some parents will do anything for their children to have some sort of advantage. The hurried-ness parents can get caught up in is referred to “manic compression” (O’Connell). David Elkind brought up this issue almost 30 years ago, and it is apparent that children are still being pushed too far, too fast. Since signing with typically developing infants is a relatively new phenomenon, it requires monitoring over a long period for evidence still needed from carefully designed and informed research. By introducing communication at a much earlier age, researchers will have the ability to monitor infants’ developing capabilities. It is the billion-dollar market that brought this trend to the front stage and here are obvious benefits to this phenomenon, however not to the extent claimed some. Only time can tell, and over the next decade, there is sure to be many more trends just like this one that will be have to be put to the test.

Works Cited

Barnes, Susan Kubic. "Sign Language With Babies: What Difference Does It Make?." Dimensions Of Early Childhood 38.1 (2010): 21-29. Education Research Complete. Web. 15 Nov. 2011.

Chomsky, Noam. “Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order”, Boston: South End Press, 1996.

Doherty-Sneddon, G., "The great baby signing debate", The Psychologist, Vol. 21, Part 4, April 2008, 300-303.

Elkind, David. “The hurried child: growing up too fast too soon.” Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1981. Print.

Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, “Introduction to Language”, Custom Edition. Nelson Education, 2005, 20-22. Print.

Garcia, W. Joseph. Sign with your baby: how to communicate with infants before they can speak. Seattle: Northlight Communications; 1999. Print.

Goodwyn, S., Acredolo, L. & Brown, C.A. . “Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development.” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior,. 24, no.2, June 2000, 81–103.

McNulty, M. “What is the essential feature of human beings?” Message posted to CS212OC Discussion Board, MLS, WLU. September 22, 2011.

Mitchell, Allen A. "Mozart Benefits Preterm Infants." Child Health Alert 28,  2010, 3-4. Education Research Complete. Web. November 18, 2011.

O'Connell, Mary. “The Hurried Infant, Parts 1 & 2.” CBC Radio - Ideas. February 23, 2009. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. November 10, 2011. < http://www.cbc.ca/video/news/audioplayer.html?clipid=1474880831 >.

Pinker, Steven. “The Language Instinct”, New York: Harper, 1994.

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