Hands Across America. Is baby sign language an essential or a rip-off?

When she was seven months old, my husband and I seriously considered enrolling our daughter, Beatrice, who has no hearing impairment, in baby sign language class. Oh, we did have some doubts: If Beatrice was busy learning how to fold and pleat her fingers into signing gestures, wouldn’t that take time and attention away from learning to speak? Wouldn’t being able to communicate through signs remove any incentive to talk? But our misgivings were brushed aside by the baby signing professionals and their acolytes. Signing is like crawling, they explained. Just as crawling gives your baby that taste of movement that motivates her to walk, signing inspires the voiceless communicator to learn how to verbalize. 

Not only do signing babies speak earlier, but research indicates they have higher IQ scores, by an average of twelve points, at age eight, they pointed out.

Well, gosh. How do you say no to that?

Still, the classes were expensive. Plus, it would take time away from work in order for us to commute to wherever it was that baby signers convened; just the thought of adding one more thing to our pittance of “time off” made me weary. On top of everything, we would have to teach the babysitter to sign too, and when would we ever find the time to do that?

I can drive myself nuts trying to weigh the pros, cons and costs of the overwhelming options. No matter what I do, someone else seems to be doing enviably more or improbably less, and either way, their child and family seem all the better for it.

Baby signing – for babies who can hear perfectly well – has become something of an epidemic. Classes are taught everywhere – from community centers to music schools to Y’s to prenatal yoga centers. Dozens of books (including a Complete Idiot’s Guide to Baby Sign Language), videos, DVDs and workshops from companies like KinderSigns purport to teach the method to parents eager to foster early language skills in their infants. Baby signing has become so well established that it was featured in Meet the Fockers, in which Robert De Niro’s character teaches his grandson to sign to comedic effect.

Yet the theory behind baby signing is quite serious. Because gross motor skills develop before the fine motor skills involved in phonetic and articulatory actions (moving tongues and mouths in the proper way to create speech), signing advocates say babies can be taught to communicate with their hands before they are physically capable of articulating thoughts. Any parent can vouch for the fact that babies seem to understand more than they can say. Who doesn’t want to know what’s going on inside her often inscrutable infant’s head?

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