Sunday, September 16, 2012

With Signing, Babies Pick the Topic!

As most readers of this blog know, my collaborator and best friend, Dr. Susan Goodwyn, and I conducted federally-funded research demonstrating that baby sign language (particularly our Baby Signs® Program), helps infants learn to talk. There are many reasons for this positive effect, one of which is something developmental psychologists call “infant initiated joint attention.”

What is “joint attention?” Quite simply, it’s when a parent and child are paying attention to the same thing—and “infant initiated joint attention” means that it’s the infant who calls the parent’s attention to something rather than the reverse. And that’s exactly what signing enables preverbal babies to do. When they see a butterfly, they can “tell” their parent about it by doing the BUTTERFLY sign, which inevitably leads to the parent talking about the butterfly—its colors, its flight, other butterflies, etc. Given that we all learn more when we are interested in something, it’s not surprising that being able to launch conversations with signs helps babies pick up words more quickly.

Turns out, though, that the success in initiating joint attention that signing allows has a broader effect, too. Research by one of my graduate students, Dr. Brie Moore, demonstrated that signing results in babies tending in general to initiate joint attention more--even when signs are not involved! In other words, signing teaches babies that their parents will respond positively when they, through whatever means, direct their parents’ attention to something. The other side of this equation, of course, is that a baby’s signing indicates to his/her parents that babies do have minds of their own and enjoy sharing things with them. It makes parents more alert and receptive in general to their baby’s attempts to draw their attention.

In other words, signing has some very obvious benefits—like reducing frustration and tantrums—but it also has more subtle benefits, like inspiring very young children to pick the topics of conversations both with and without the use of signs.

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to visit us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
Co-Founder, The Baby Signs® Program
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