Baby Sign Language: What Research Says & Resources for Grown Ups {Part 2}

To be honest, this post intimidates me! The research on baby signing is difficult to pare down into a tidy little blog post! My audience is the everyday family who is curious about using sign language with their little ones. I’ll point you to the best resources, as is my librarian duty, and spare you the intimidation of sorting through it all yourself! (If you’re itching to do your own scholarly research, use the search term “symbolic gesturing.”) If you missed last week, read more about our personal experience with baby sign here.

baby sign language research resources

The sources I’ve been exploring make some extraordinary claims, and much of the praise is in line with my personal experience signing with my two children. However, other sources question the small sample sizes and suggest that there isn’t a robust enough body of scientific research to support the claims. What I have found, though, is that not a single source related negative outcomes associated with baby sign. So, it’s not harmful, and according to numerous sources, may have substantial positive impact on little ones, both short and long term.

Simply Put: The Benefits of Sign

When I began to sign with my first Baby Bookworm, the two opinions I heard from dissenters were “Why bother? He’ll be just fine and start talking when he’s ready.  You’re just adding stress to your life.” And, “Don’t you think that’s going to slow down his speech development? Why will he talk when he can just sign?” As a parent I wanted to do what was best for my baby, of course. And I wasn’t interested in adding undue stress! Parenting has enough of that! Here’s what research has to say:

Signing with hearing babies has been studied since the 1980s and consistently has shown that signing aids the linguistic process (Goodwyn, Acredolo & Brown; Vallotton, Decker and Fusaro; Rowe & Goldin; Xu, et al.). Baby sign language is also recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (Jana & Shu).

“Every time a baby successfully uses sign, changes occur in the brain, bringing the child closer to mastering language.  The circuitry in the brain- which talking requires- develops along with a child’s experience with language. Because using signs enables children to begin the process earlier, the development of the circuitry gets a significant jump start that continues to pay off for years down the road.” (Acredolo & Goodwyn)

The average nonsigning child at 12 months has about 2-3 words and at 18 months around 10-50. In research studies, signing children at 12 months average 25 signs and 16 spoken words, and at 18 months, 70 signs and 105 words (Anthony & Lindert). What a world of difference in getting your message across! I would like to have more than double the capacity to communicate if it were available to me!

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that:

  • At 24 months, the babies who were taught sign were on average talking more like 27 or 28 month olds. In addition, the 24 month old signing babies were putting together significantly longer sentences.
  • At 36 months, baby signers on average were talking like 47 month olds, putting them almost a full year ahead of their average age-mates. (Goodwyn, Acredolo & Brown)

It makes sense that sign would further the linguistic process when considering the disparity between babies’ development of receptive language skills (understanding what they hear) and expressive language skills (using their own words to express their thoughts). A massive study funded by the MacArthur Foundation has shown that “there is a big difference between when babies can comprehend a word and when they can say it… To say a word, the baby has to coordinate emotional expression with the difficult task of constructing a mental meaning and figuring out how to get her articulatory mechanism in just the right place for just the right lenghts of time” (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek).

Sign language allows babies to bridge that gap during the window of time before their verbal skills catch up with their comprehension: “[Signs] help the child ford the transition between babbling to speech to real words. And, because they are more likely to resemble what they stand for, they are intermediate between protowords (invented words) and real words”  (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek).

Researchers say that the single biggest determinate in a child’s language acquisition is exposure (Berman); signing naturally leads to a rich speech environment. When Baby Bookworm signs bird, I naturally engage with him, “Wow! You’re right. There are lots of birds at the bird feeder today! I see a black bird and a blue bird. They are eating the bird seed. I bet they’re hungry. Now they’re flying away. They’re fast!” And boom! Expanding his language around a topic he was interested in. This kind of talk is certainly not exclusive to signers, but sign encourages it and generates child initiated conversations. Observations of parents who sign have shown this “bathing” of kids in language is typical practice (Vallotton, Garcia), and it’s one possible explanation for the data comparing signing kids’ vocabularies to nonsigning kids’.

(And, signing with my babies has been a JOY! The opposite of adding stress, it has decreased frustration and made communication easier. I found that this benefit was mutual as I was equipped to better and more easily understand and meet my babies’ needs. But that’s just anecdotal ;))

baby sign language resources recommended reading

Further Reading:

  • Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk by Linda Acredolo & Susan Goodwyn. Virtually all the sources I’ve consulted make mention at least once to Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, so their work is an excellent place to start! They were the forerunners of baby signing, and they now have decades of scientific study and research to their names, funded by the National Institutes of Health. Their book is full of research but presented in a very readable format, with practical tips & a signing dictionary. If you’re interested in a balance including the more heady aspect of signing, definitely look for this book.This is my top pick. If you only read one book about sign, read this one!
  • Superbaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years by Jenn Berman. This is not a baby signing book but a comprehensive parenting manual of sorts with an excellent chapter on sign language. Underpinning Berman’s chapter on sign language are a variety of research sources, with very practical tips on how to teach your baby to sign. Includes a 24 page chapter and several appendix pages with extensive resources.
  • Manuals: There are dozens of baby signing manuals which often contain picture dictionaries of common signs. Whatever is available at your local library will likely fit the bill for some more detailed information beyond my blog and online resources I’ve listed below. (Y’all know how librarians choose books for your libraries, right? It’s their job to scour review sources and select the best resources for the library’s collection.) I didn’t find it necessary to own a comprehensive signing dictionary but instead found that a basic children’s guide combined with an online dictionary worked well. In my next post I’ll share resources for kiddos. My favorite manual is Baby Sign Language Basics by Monta Z. Briant. An extensive visual dictionary (300+ pages), also includes a DVD.
  • If you’re looking for a dictionary app, My Smart Hands is a solid choice; take a look at their website for a breakdown of the features of their various offerings. I found the “lite” version to be a great place to start, with almost 90 free videos. Baby Sign & Learn Dictionary is another good choice if you’re looking for a dictionary app; about 40 sign videos are included in the free “lite” version (which hits the most common signs we’ve used), and for $2.99 you can upgrade to an additional 300 signs.
  • The Science Behind the Signing: Proven Benefits from Two Decades of Scientific Research. This site includes an overview of Acredolo & Goodwyn’s many studies, including concise summaries of their research outcomes for almost a dozen case studies in bibliography form (in case you’re looking for full text of their studies).
  • White Paper: Signing with Babies and Children. This site includes a summary of research findings on the impact of signing on language development, cognitive development, and social-emotional development. It includes research as well as practice, with several FAQs on how to implement signing.

Books mentioned should be readily  available at your local library, or at the Amazon affiliate links provided.

Works Cited:

Anthony, M. & R. Lindert. Signing Smart with Babies and Toddlers: A Parent’s Strategy and Activity Guide. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.

Berman, J. Superbaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. New York: Sterling, 2010.

Garcia, J. Sign With Your Baby: How to Communicate with Infants Before They Can Speak. Seattle: Northlight, 1999.

Golinkoff, R.M. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life. New York: Dutton, 1999.

Goodwyn L. & S. Acredolo Baby Signs: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009.

Goodwyn, S., L. Acredolo, and A.L. Brown, Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior, 2000. 24(2): p. 81-103.

Jana, L.A. & J. Shu. Heading Home with  Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. 3rd ed. Elk Grove Village: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015.

Rowe, M.L. and S. Goldin-Meadow, Early gesture selectively predicts later language learning. Developmental Science, 2009. 12(1): p. 182-187.

Vallotton, C., Babies open our minds to their minds: How “listening” to infant signs complements and extends our knowledge of infants and their development. Infant Mental Health Journal, 2011. 32(1): p. 115-133.

Vallotton, C., K.B. Decker, and M. Fusaro. A bridge to somewhere: Symbolic gestures as concrete representations that build towards abstract ones, in XVIIth Biennial International Conference on Infant Studies. 2010. Baltimore, MD.

Xu, J., et al., Symbolic gestures and spoken language are processed by a common neural system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009. 106(49): p. 20664-20669.

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