Can babies communicate with hand movements earlier than vocalization?

I’m putting this in GD rather than IMHO because I am interested in hard evidence, if any, not just a pile of anecdotes. Anecdotes I have aplenty. Yet there might be some debate here, too.

I was just talking to a parent of a 2 year old, who says that he communicates with his child using sign language and it works. No one in his family is deaf. This is apparently a new fad among his peer parents, who believe that the mental power of babies can be connected to hand movements earlier in life than mouth movements. They say that kids who are unable to communicate thru speech can do it with a simplified sign language.

A web search on baby sign turns up mostly sites that encourage people of all ages to learn ASL or some other “adult” language as a useful tool for general communication, like learning french. But I haven’t yet found a site that is a strong proponent of my friend’s claim. The nearest was this site (bolding mine):

This site claims “Proven Benefits from Two Decades of Scientific Research”, but does not give the research, just two docs with impressive PhDs. This says “groundbreaking research,” but cites no specific papers.

I can’t help but notice a similarity between “baby sign” concepts and playing Mozart for babies,facilitated communication, and even such experiments with Washoe the chimp and N’kisi, the parrot, all of which claim that communication is possible across age, disability and/or species boundaries. Most of those claims are highly suspicious, and most can be reduced to merely wishful thinking.

So, my question is: is there any good evidence that baby signing has the benefits the proponents claim? Can babies actually talk with hands better than mouths?

What are the benefits that they claim? I don’t doubt that it can be done, but I do dout it would somehow give your baby a major heads up over the other babies.
Isn’t it the rule of thumb that they all even out by kindergarden anway?

If they can they would be like the Navy Seals.

I’ve no proof that it works ( which is why I didn’t post earlier ), but one claim I’ve heard is that it makes it easier to find out what your baby wants or needs earlier. Instead of playing guessing games about whether he/she’s hungry, thirsty, lonely, etc.

I do recall claims that babies who are taught sign language learn to sign faster than speaking babies learn to talk out loud.

It’s not to give your kid a head start, just a simple means of communication that can often lessen frustration. You can teach signs like more, drink, bed, that kind of thing. For a toddler who can’t yet talk, it’s a better option than screaming. The way you teach it is just to say things like “Do you want more?”–and make the sign (which is two fists, one on top of the other–very simple). Pretty soon the kid catches on.

I did a couple with my oldest, but both of mine learned to talk pretty early on and just didn’t need it. Lots of families seem to find it very useful, though. But AFAIK it’s not a “brain development” gimmick; just a practical technique.

Baby Signs and other similar books are listed at Amazon, and will probably be at your local library.

I get the impression that it isn’t an early start claim, but more like facilitated communication. The claim is that a baby’s mind is working on a more adult level than their mouths are able to express. Their hands can express it, though.

Sort of like you are thinking deep thoughts but are paralyzed when it comes to expression if you are limited to only mouth output. Suddenly, another method of expression is found and wow! You can communicate!

Sounds like wishful thinking to me, but I am willing to be convinced. But I want to see some hard evidence first.

Dangermom, I think we’re talking about the same concept. And since you’re a “…Mom”, I’m sure you feel it works with your kids. But I often feel I can communicate with my cat through non-speech, too (that tail action talks a lot).

So do we have any hard evidence that [ol][]vocalization development lags hand development, and[]mental development is more rapid than previously thought, andthe advanced mental development can be expressed thru hand movements, but no other way?[/ol]

Actually, if you read my post, I said that we hardly used it at all, since my kids were early talkers. I therefore have not made a study of the topic–thus the book recommendations, so that you can do further research yourself. :slight_smile:

The first I heard of baby signing was a study to determine if:

  1. babies begin to talk when their brains begin to be able to handle language
    or
  2. babies begin to talk when their brains begin to get control of their vocal apparatus.

The study looked at the babies of deaf parents and IIRC, the study determined that those babies began to sign at about the same time that other babies began to talk, so that the conclusion was 1) babies begin to talk when their brains begin to be able to handle language.

If studies have gone on to say that signing comes first, I missed it.

[QUOTE=Musicat]
Dangermom, I think we’re talking about the same concept. And since you’re a “…Mom”, I’m sure you feel it works with your kids. But I often feel I can communicate with my cat through non-speech, too (that tail action talks a lot).

So do we have any hard evidence that [ol][li]vocalization development lags hand development, and[]mental development is more rapid than previously thought, and[]the advanced mental development can be expressed thru hand movements, but no other way?[/ol][/li][/QUOTE]

Thought experiment:

Okay, so, you’re a baby. You don’t know nothing about nothing. You know all those other people make all these noises, and you can probably figure out that they have some kind of meaning. Problem is, you don’t know squat about how to make those noises. All the big people just open their mouths and they come right out! You can’t see them moving their tounges or throats. Heck, even now, as a full-fledged adult, I don’t know how I make the sounds, I just do.
Now hand motions, that’s easy stuff. I can see them moving their hands. I can look at my own hands and see if I’m moving them the same way. It might take some practice, but I know how to go about getting it done.

Makes sense to me.

Me, too. That’s why I am seeking more evidence than just “Hey, that sounds OK!”

Human beings are easily fooled.

Many babies will wave hi or bye before they speak, and that’s just another sign, just as the sign for “all gone” is. While I don’t have a peer-reviewed study to cite, our speech therapists, occupational therapist and the specialist with the Ph.D. tell us that early signing facilitates language connections in children with developmental disabilities, if not all children. All four of these people deal primarily with developmentally disabled children.

We’ve never used the “baby signs,” but actual ASL for my oldest son. I can’t imagine trying to teach a small baby to sign anything, but my middle son was signing quite well by the time he was 9 months. He just picked it up on his own, from watching us and his brother sign back and forth.

I doubt it makes any difference by the time a typically developing child is five or so, but it sure makes it easier to communicate with a toddler. It alleviates a lot of frustration, and allows a young child to express their wants/needs.

MissGypsy, it looks like your family had a previous familiarity with ASL sign language, perhaps for another reason, such as deafness. So could you have predisposed to use this method of communication?

Hardly the proof I would like to see, but interesting nonetheless. I am looking for any bias that might be introduced to this equation due to previous exposure or familiarity to sign language.

Could “it makes it easier to communicate with a toddler” be all in your mind? The trainers of Washoe and N’kisi thought they were talking to their charges, too. I can read my cat’s mind, especially around dinnertime or when a bird is outside the window.

Please don’t be offended by my suggestion that such communication might not be all that genuine. I have no doubt that you believe you are in touch with your offspring’s feelings. But the fact that I feel, strongly, that an angel is watching over me is by no means sufficient evidence to ensure that it is true.

Has anyone read the studies referenced in the links? If so, are they valid, or thin in the proof department?

So far, we’ve got lots of IMHO. Do we have anything else?

Actually, kid #1 started learning ASL at 3 1/2 years because he’s autistic, and that’s his primary form of communication. Kids #2 and #3 have been around it since birth. We’ve learned it along with #1, and neither of us have any significant previous exposure to it.

Well, one more click from your link gives a list of real papers. Now it is not clear whether or not subjects were randomized into intervention and non-intervention groups and therefore if some of the documented benefits represent a selection bias, but that caveat noted, it’s a pretty good list.

My anecdotal experience as a pediatrician is merely that young toddlers can develop a moderately extensive sign vocabulary long before they have the control over their vocal apparatus to engage in much spoken language. Signs also give a contextual clue to the grunts and "Baaa"s that a child uses: “Baaa” for sheep toy? for bottle? for ball? for the Bob the Builder toy? Which one? Oh she’s also signing that hands going round sign at the same time! The ball! Commmunication attempt reinforced. Child happy.

Language is built with practice and exposure. Whether a child is signing or not, a parent keeping up the conversation, even if it is a monologue, is how how a child learns what words are. It seems clear that conversation that goes two ways is easier to keep engaging in than parental soliquies. This helps that process.

BTW, these are not ASL signs. They are simple and reproducible gestures. We tried a bit with our fourth, who we adopted from China at age 1 year. She got the pounding two fists together for “more” pretty much right away but we were not consistent enough with anything else for much else to take and she erupted with spoken language so quickly that it quickly went by the wayside. We were I admit a bit lazy and had other older kids to deal with too. But for another year she would sign “More!” for emphasis when we didn’t respond as fast Her Highness desired!

Does it result in a long term difference? I don’t know. But the data is highly suggestive that it does and conclusive that it causes no harm.

More IMHO FWIW: Our twins didn’t start talking until two and a half. Before that it had gotten pretty frustrating, for both us and them, trying to communicate. We started teaching them signs to ease the frustration. These were not ASL signs, but mostly signs suggested in Baby Signs and often ones we made up ourselves. The kids caught on really quickly and I noticed a reduction in stress immediately.

As others have said, I don’t remember the Baby Signs stuff being pitched to make your kid smarter (like the Baby Mozart series). It was really pitching the idea that your kid could start communicating around a year old (IIRC) – long before he might start talking.

In answer to the question you had for others: There is no ASL use in our family.

The research is all online at the site you linked to. You can take a look at it and see if it holds up: here

I recommend a recent issue of Scientific American that came out either last month or the one before. It was all about the Cognitive Development of children. The entire issue.

That’s the same link and same three papers referenced several times in this thread. It appears to be all that there is.

Note that the same two authors names are on all three reports. There is no independent corroboration offered.

From my cursory examination, I don’t think the studies hold up. However, IAMAPediatrician, clinician or statistician qualified to render a strong opinion. But my bullshit meter has begun to max out as anecdotes pile up and better evidence is lacking.

I will check it at the library. Is there anything in there directly related?

No offense, CaveMike, but are you aware that your observational viewpoint renders you highly incapable of rendering an unbiased opinion on this subject?

I would like to suggest to all those that supplied personal anecdotes that this page would make good reading: Evaluating Personal Experience.

Your observations aren’t necessarily wrong, they just aren’t good evidence.

Well since you meant no offense… Yes I am aware, Musicat that’s why I prefaced my comment with IMHO. I really don’t need a link to Evaluating Personal Experience. Your OP seemed unclear as to the extent of the claims for Baby Signs and I thought my input would clarify it. It doesn’t seem like an outrageous claim that a one-year old can make a fist for milk even though they can’t say the word. But I have absolutely no facts to back that up.

I’ve been researching this for the past three years, and I’ve yet to find a credible, double-blind, peer-reviewed clinical study that indicates that early use of signs leads to early use of verbal language. It just doesn’t exist, yet.

I doubt that it ever will, because I can’t imagine how to create the controlled environment that would be necessary for such a study within the boundaries of medical ethics. What, separate identical twins, teach one to sign and not the other, and see how they fare? Not doable. Not a lot of parents are eager to allow their children to be test cases for something that isn’t all that significant, in the long run.

One must understand, this is a relatively new field of exploration in child development, particularly in children with developmental disabilities. How the developing brain makes language connections is still something of a mystery. Why most children have a sudden “burst” of speech around 2 – 2 ½ is still a matter of speculation. Why some children don’t say a word until 3, and then speak in complete sentences is completely unknown. Why some autistic children speak until the age of 2 and then stop is also unknown.

Musicat, your original question has already been answered. Yes, babies can communicate via sign before they can speak. I have video proof of that, and personal experience that indicates it, and if that isn’t “hard proof,” I don’t know what is.

As I’ve said before, we don’t use “baby signs,” but ASL; I doubt that would make any difference, however, for a young, typically developing child. For our family, we’ve found that ASL is more widely recognized, and will benefit my son more as he gets older. It’s just a second language, as Spanish or French would be.