Part of me feels excited whenever hearing acquaintances tell me they’re teaching their infant some baby sign language. (I’m deaf, so I inevitably become a magnet for these conversations.) These parents rave: “It’s so fun and so visual! I can see what my baby is trying to say to me!”
“That’s great,” I say, and tell them to keep it up.
Baby sign language borrows some signs — like “milk,” “more,” “all done,” “mommy” and “daddy” — from American Sign Language in order to enable hearing parents to achieve some basic sign- and gesture-based communication with their infants before they are capable of speech. In my view, the more people who sign in this world, the better. And I defy you to suppress a smile when a baby signs “more” by bouncing her chubby little fingertips together.
But part of me also objects when baby signs are marketed in a vacuum, isolated from their origins in the full, rich American Sign Language that I know. The increasingly mainstream trend — driven by parenting books and how-to videos — is largely being pushed by hearing people, for the benefit of hearing children. It seems like a major missed opportunity to take advantage of the contributions that deaf people — the primary users (and originators) of signed languages — can offer to the world.
Leading proponents of baby signing say that it’s a way for parents to develop stronger bonds with their babies, and that it has benefits for language development and cognition, though the evidence for this among hearing children is weak. Signing is also clearly valuable for children whose brains might be better suited to visual rather than verbal communication: not only deaf children, but also those with autism and other forms of cognitive difference.
The baby sign language phenomenon connects to what culturally deaf people celebrate as “Deaf Gain”: the notion that all of humanity can gain significant benefits and insights from deaf visual-spatial contributions to the world, including ASL and all its rich linguistic possibilities. Deaf friends I talk with applaud hearing parents for learning some signs with their children, and express hope that, someday, more people will use a signed language on an everyday basis, making communication easier for all of us.
But the developers and users of baby sign language don’t necessarily see ASL fluency as a goal. Many of the books and websites actually assure parents that they don’t need to learn full ASL, and also that using baby signs won’t impede a child’s spoken language acquisition.
Most striking for me, when I browsed top-hitting baby sign videos on YouTube, I found several that featured stretches of verbal speaking and singalong, without any captions. I was watching visual fragments of my own language, framed by spoken English, which excludes me. I felt disjointed, oddly erased.
Finally, there is one more reason I feel ambivalent when my hearing acquaintances tell me they are using baby signs with their children. Often, I notice that these acquaintances are people who have never attempted to use any sign language with me — even though I am deaf, even though I am the one person they know who could most benefit from visual communication. This omission strikes me as a huge loss, even a huge injustice.
When we see sign language as only a fad, a trend or merely as “so beautiful,” and when we separate it from the context of the actual deaf people who use it to communicate, we lose sight of the real stakes of language. Language welcomes, but it also excludes.
For decades, medical and educational professionals have discouraged hearing parents from signing with their deaf children. My own parents were told not to sign with me when I was a baby — and then proceeded to disregard that advice, for which I am exceedingly grateful. Some of these professionals believe that speech is superior and signing is only a crutch for spoken language acquisition, despite the fact that ASL has been recognised as a full language since the 1960s.
The consequences of this philosophy of enforced speech for deaf education, literacy and language development have been disastrous: It has meant that many deaf children never acquire a fluent native language that will enable them to reach their potential. This is starting to change, but most deaf children still do not receive full ASL exposure in their early years, which are critical for language acquisition.
The fundamental injustice of the baby sign-language trend is that our culture touts the benefits of signing for hearing children, but disregards ASL for the deaf children who need it the most.
We need to provide more access to signed language for the people who really need it. As a path towards mainstream acceptance why not give fluent deaf users of ASL more leadership and visibility to usher in the widespread use of their language? (The Baby Einstein signing videos, which star the deaf actress Marlee Matlin, are a good model.) Families who find themselves interested in baby signs may be intrigued by the contributions of deaf storytellers, like Leala Holcomb and her partners at Hands Land or Sheena McFeely and Manny Johnson of ASL Nook, who have put together children’s tales and visual nursery rhymes in ASL. And why not invite more people to use ASL throughout their lives?
Sign language has untapped potential for enabling richer, more enhanced communication for everyone — but only if we move past framing it as “baby talk.”
–New York Times News Service