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Baby Sign Language
Learning to Talk
Research funded by the National Institutes of Health

Will baby signing discourage my baby from learning to talk?
Absolutely not! In fact, in a long-term study of Baby Signs funded by the National Institute of Health and conducted at the University of California, we found the exact opposite to be true: Using Baby Signs actually makes it easier for babies to learn to talk.

When we compared children who had been encouraged to use Baby Signs with children from the same areas who had not, we found that the Baby Signers consistently scored higher on standardized tests of both receptive language development (how much they understand) and expressive language development (how much they can say).

  • Brain development
    Communicating requires thinking, planning, and decision-making (e.g., “Hmm, is that a bird or a duck?”). Each one of these activities stimulates the developing brain in important ways that benefit the child the next time around. Because Baby Signing enables children to communicate at remarkably young ages, Baby Signers enjoy a “jump start” in the development of the neural substrate of language.

  • Baby Signs “pull” verbal language from adults
    When babies use Baby Signs to call attention to things, adults quite naturally respond with lots of appropriate words (e.g., “Oh! You see a kitty! That’s right! That is a kitty! That kitty looks just like our kitty, doesn’t it!”). And we know that the more language a baby hears, the faster language acquisition proceeds.

  • Baby Signs enable a baby to pick the topic
    We all find it easier to learn about things in which we are really interested. With Baby Signs at their disposal, babies can direct their parents’ attention to objects they find fascinating rather than just listening to labels for things their parents think are important.

  • Baby Signs are fun!
    Just as learning to crawl is so exciting that it inspires babies to learn to walk, Baby Signing whets a baby’s appetite for even better ways to communicate. In other words, the motivation to learn to talk actually increases rather than decreases when you encourage your baby to communicate with Baby Signs.

Baby Signs ® Bibliography

Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn (1985). Symbolic gesturing in language development: A case study. Human Development, 28, 40-49.

This article presents the story of our first "Baby Signer," Linda’s daughter Kate who began to spontaneously create symbolic gestures when she was about 12 months old. These were "sensible" gestures (like sniffing for "flower" and arms-up for "big"). We then made it easy for her by modeling other simple gestures for things in which she was interested and followed her progress in terms of both gestural and verbal development.

Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn (1988). Symbolic gesturing in normal infants. Child Development, 59, 450-466.
Readily Available in Libraries

Our goal in the two separate studies described in this article was to learn more about the spontaneous development of symbolic gestures by infants. Was Linda’s daughter alone in doing so (see Acredolo & Goodwyn, 1985) or were other babies as creative as Kate? The answer was extremely clear. Although Linda was a bit disappointed to learn that Kate was not totally unique, she quickly became excited to see that most babies create at least one or two such symbolic gestures and that some children, like Kate, create many. The article also describes (a) relations with verbal development, (b) the sources of the gestures in the babies’ everyday lives, (c) and gender and birth order differences.

Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn (1990). The significance of symbolic gesturing for understanding language development. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of Child Development (Vol. 7, pp. 1-42). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Readily Available in Libraries

This invited chapter provided an opportunity for us to review the role that symbolic gestures, including formal sign language systems such as ASL, seem to play in the development of verbal language in hearing children. We describe many classic case studies (e.g., Holmes & Holmes, 1980 and Prinz & Prinz, 1979) in addition to our own work and identify common denominators among them. The final discussion addresses the question of whether certain early milestones of language development (e.g., first true symbol, first two symbol combinations) are more easily achieved in the gestural than in the verbal modality.

Susan Goodwyn and Linda Acredolo, (1993). Symbolic gesture versus word: Is there a modality advantage for onset of symbol use? Child Development, 64, 688-701.

The results reported in this article represent some of the earliest findings from our NIH-sponsored longitudinal study of the impact of purposefully encouraging babies to use symbolic gestures. The goal was to shed light on a hotly debated topic: the degree to which gestural symbols represent an easier entrée into symbolic communication.

Linda Acredolo, L. P., & Goodwyn, S.W. (1997). Furthering our understanding of what humans understand, Human Development, 40, 25-31.
Readily Available in Libraries.

Because we had done so much work in the area of children and symbolic gesturing, we were asked by the editor of this prestigious journal to write an article commenting on the other work presented in the issue – wonderful research done at Emory University on the use of gestures by chimpanzees. We were particularly thrilled when a picture of one of our own "Baby Signers" was used for the cover of the issue.

Susan Goodwyn and Linda Acredolo (1998). Encouraging symbolic gestures: Effects on the relationship between gesture and speech. In J. Iverson & S. Goldin-Meadows (Eds.) The nature and functions of gesture in children’s communication (pp. 61-73). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Readily Available in Libraries.

This invited chapter provided an opportunity for us to summarize our program of research on symbolic gesturing, from the earliest work with Kate to the results of our NIH-sponsored longitudinal study of the impact of gesturing on verbal development.

Linda Acredolo, Susan Goodwyn, Karen Horobin, and Yvonne Emmons (1999). The signs and sounds of early language development. In L. Balter & C. Tamis-LeMonda (Eds.), Child Psychology: A Handbook of Contemporary Issues (pp. 116 – 139). New York: Psychology Press. 

The editors of this volume asked us to do more than simply summarize our research findings. We were delighted to accept the challenge. Our goal in the chapter was to show how the results of our studies of symbolic gesturing shed light on important and still unresolved questions in language development: Why does comprehension of language generally precede production? Why is vocabulary growth so slow in the months following the first word? What accounts for the frequently observed phenomenon called the "vocabulary spurt?" What developments underlie the beginning of the "two word" stage? In the final section of the chapter we challenge researchers to begin using symbolic gesturing as a tool to explore other important developmental issues, issues that have traditionally had to await the onset of verbal language (e.g., longterm memory for events, concept development, abstract thinking, emotional knowledge). As an added bonus the chapter includes nearly a dozen vignettes drawn from our data and chosen to illustrate the creative ways babies use Baby Signs.

Susan Goodwyn, Linda Acredolo, and Catherine Brown (in press). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior .

This is the article in which we present the most important findings from our NIH-sponsored longitudinal study of the impact on verbal development of purposefully encouraging infants to use symbolic gestures. Standardized tests of both receptive and expressive language development had been administered at 11, 15, 19, 24, 30, and 36 months to both an experimental group of babies (Baby Signers) and two control groups. Results demonstrated a clear advantage for the Baby Signers, thereby laying to rest the most frequently voiced concern of parents – that Baby Signing might hamper learning to talk. In fact, the good news is that Baby Signing actually facilitates verbal language development.

Acredolo, L. P., & Goodwyn, S.W. (July 2000). The long-term impact of symbolic gesturing during infancy on IQ at age 8. Paper presented at the meetings of the International Society for Infant Studies, Brighton, UK.

The WISC-III was administered to subjects from our NIH-sponsored longitudinal study during the summer following completion of second grade. Much to our surprise and delight, the results indicated a significant 12 point advantage for the children who had been encouraged to use Baby Signs during their second year of life (Mean IQ = 114) over the children who had been in the Non-Intervention Control Group (Mean IQ= 102). The advantage held for both the Verbal and Performance Sub-scales of the WISC-III.

Brie Moore, Linda Acredolo, & Susan Goodwyn (April 2001). Symbolic gesturing and joint attention: Partners in facilitating verbal development. Paper presented at the Biennial Meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Using video data collected in their federally funded, longitudinal study, the researchers looked to see whether the Baby Signing experience stimulates development of the ability to actively direct an adult's attention to something in which the baby is interested. Called, "joint attention," this ability is known to be an important contributor to learning to talk. Much to the researchers' delight, the Baby Signing babies were indeed found to engage in more joint attention episodes with their mothers than did non-Baby Signers during laboratory play sessions at 19 and 24 months. Moreover, the effect held independently of linguistic skill, indicating that Baby Signing itself was a unique contributor to the joint attention scores. These data are important because they help explain why Baby Signing babies tend to learn to talk earlier than non-Baby Signers. The study may also help explain why the Baby Signing experience has been found to have a positive effect on IQ at age 8.

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