Archive for February, 2011

Babies Need Complex Language, Not Baby Signs

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Amy: When Elliot was a baby, and we were the family of a newly diagnosed deaf infant, we were told many things by “helpful” people.  One myth that kept popping up was that we could learn a handful of signs, just like the cute babies you see on the “Baby Sign” style videos.  Now, if you read about them or listen to urban mythology, baby signs are a fabulous way to keep your baby perfectly happy and tantrum free, all while communicating the most important nouns and a few verbs.  Your baby could then ask for a cookie, for milk, for a sign language DVD, and life would be calm and trouble-free, using communication for their basic needs.

Except that learning a language doesn’t actually work that way.

Recent research confirms that babies learn complex language from the adults who are using it… starting immediately in their infancy.

Babies Process Language in a Grown-Up Way


Baby Talk: Roots Of Early Vocabulary In Infants’ Learning From Speech

Babies need complex language in order to grow their brain normally, to do what babies should do.  The neural networks are increasing and developing at an astounding rate.  Now, babies who learn baby sign rather than ASL are getting their normal language also because their ears work and they can take in the conversations around them.  No doubt, their mothers are not silent, and they likely mouth or even speak words when they sign “cookie,” because that’s just natural. Most parents that gush about baby signs for their own children used them for a very short period, and phased it out because it’s never going to be as easy as just talking for the normal hearing mother/father.  I have yet to meet a 10 year old who signs for their basic needs due to having learned baby signs.

But I still cringe when I hear people rave about those silly videos.  First, you can’t prevent all infant discomfort, and really… should you?  Is there something to be said for learning to deal with life’s little annoyances?  Is there something going on when a baby learns that he or she needs to practice, babble, coo and finally say what he or she wants?  I think there is.  But, I’ll leave that for another discussion, because I didn’t have a hearing infant when I was first encouraged to try Baby Signs, and it appears that no one really cares that “baby sign” programs have no real research to back them up.

Deaf infants miss out on complex spoken language in most families until they are appropriately amplified.  Let me rephrase that, because it’s important.  There is an emergency for deaf babies’ brains– they cannot get the complex language lessons in MOST families.  But, you might ask, what about deaf babies in families that use ASL because their parents are also deaf or know sign language?  Oh, wait, that may be an exception.  But a very, very tiny exception, because most deaf infants are born to hearing families.  Somewhere between 90 and 95% of deaf infants are born to hearing families.

So, the rationale of the professionals and helpful people who we met were apparently affected by a similar logic that the “baby signs” people are… that you can use simplified language and still be OK with a baby.  That’s all they need.  They’re just babies.

This was the part that always seemed so obviously wrong to me, though I was just learning about infant language and development.  I had a feeling that my older boys, who had been born hearing, were developing well because we talked and read a lot to them, even as very tiny infants.  I remember that the hospital where my oldest was born actually gave out a book and sticker that said “Read to me” to the infants who were born there.  So, dutifully, I started reading to him before he could sit up and before he could do much more than eat and sleep.  He probably was read thousands of books before the age of 3, and certainly before he could use many of the words in the books.  Today, that same baby is in high school and scores very well on tests of vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension.  I think there’s a connection.

When I heard about Auditory Verbal Therapy and how it worked, I began to look into language learning.  I realized that my suspicions were correct.  Babies need complex language from their parents very early on in order to develop normally.  For babies born to hearing parents this absolutely HAS to be in their native language, because the parent will simply be incapable of speaking in complex ways in ASL.  While one can learn a language later in life, one cannot learn it in one or even two years.  Research shows that hearing parents never exceed a preschool level of ASL, on average.  Sure, you can seek out a few in your community who use ASL, but there’s no way the child will get the same benefit without the household caregiver using that language all day long.  If you want to learn ASL for personal fun and edification, do it– but don’t think you can learn it in time to teach an infant how to use it.  The baby will grow up faster than you can sign “I love you.”

With cochlear implants or hearing aids and spoken language, deaf babies can have normal language and brain development.  This will affect their entire life, especially in the areas of education and employment.  In many ways, previous generations could only do so much to assist this… without the kinds of amplification that we have now, they were unable to do much more than use sign language or choose oral methods which were arduous and only somewhat effective.  Today, though, parents can effectively allow for normal communication when they seek immediate and appropriate amplification for their children.

Melissa: Using and developing complex language is intrinsic to Auditory-Verbal therapy.  Once our children begin to learn to listen, we work on phrases and sentences, for example multi-item directions that grow evermore complex over the years.  We sing songs, read books and recite nursery rhymes.  We speak in sentences throughout the day, which we are able to do because we are using our native language.  Our therapist worked in thematic units, systematically introducing new vocabulary through each new theme, revisiting the theme year to year to build on existing knowledge, language complexity and vocabulary.  We built scenes associated with the themes and narrated stories about them, constantly using complex language.  I remember the first time I was able to reason with Rachel.  She wanted to do something, but before we could do it, we had to do something else first.  I explained to her that first we would do x and then we could do y.  I remember seeing her little eyes light up as she caught on, smiling and repeating over and over, first this then that.

Babies have amazingly elastic brains that process complex language years before they understand the rules of language.  They use past tenses, pronouns, etc, and we can see their brains at work as they try to figure language out, saying things such as, “I builted it,” or “He runned.”  They use the articles “a” and “the” without understanding why.  Their brains form auditory impressions that go well beyond single words.  Simplifying language through the use of baby signs, which amount to single words, will not provide babies who are hearing impaired with exposure to complex language and will not contribute to their cognitive development.

Further evidence for me of the necessity of speaking to our children in our native language is that being an Auditory-Verbal parent made me a better parent to my next two children.  My son has normal hearing.  I was so used to the importance of language and working on language and vocabulary through everyday language with Rachel by the time he came along when she was almost 4 that I made him an Auditory-Verbal child without realizing it.  I would talk and narrate to him just as I did with Rachel.  I remember bringing him with me to Rachel’s Auditory-Verbal therapy session one day when my babysitter canceled.  He had just turned two years old.  He started talking, and Rachel’s therapist’s mouth dropped open at his language level, from proper use of pronouns to length and complexity of his sentences.  He is now a freshman in college, and to this day language and vocabulary remain one of his strengths and were among his highest scores on the SATs.  Thus, imparting our own complex language to our children, rather than simple individual baby signs, is how we can best serve our children whether or not they are hearing impaired.