Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Study of Signing and Memory

Ask a parent what signs they are most anxious for their children to learn and the answer is likely to be EAT, DRINK, MORE, and ALL DONE—the “Mealtime Signs.” There’s no doubt that these signs are important to both parent and child, but other signs are important as well. Babies use signs for all sorts of reasons besides wanting to eat or drink. One of my favorite uses of signs is to enable babies to talk about their memories.

It comes as a surprise to many parents (and many researchers) that babies and toddlers are, indeed, capable of laying down memories for salient experiences and retrieving those memories after a considerable time. We tested this capacity ourselves in our lab at the University of California at Davis a decade or so ago. Here’s what we did.

Fourteen-month-olds were invited to our lab for a study about signing. While the parent and child were waiting for the experiment to begin, they were in a room with a live mouse named “Mickey” contained in a colorful “house” cage. Not surprisingly, the children were inevitably drawn to the mouse.

When the experiment itself began, the mouse was removed and parents were asked to try teaching a set of signs to their child over the next 2 months. The signs represented different categories (e.g., requests, nouns, adjectives) and included the sign for MOUSE. The parents were told we were interested in which signs were more easily learned.

In reality, the experiment was a test of whether the babies would use a sign to indicate a memory. Specifically, when the families returned to the lab 2 months later there was no mouse in the room and our video cameras filmed the children to see if they would use the MOUSE sign to ask about it, thereby indicating that they remembered the presence of Mickey during their earlier visit.

What did we find? Yes, indeed, we saw enough of the toddlers sign MOUSE with quizzical expressions (or even combined with a WHERE? sign) that we knew we had succeeded! Toddlers can indeed remember an event that occurred 2 months earlier and can use a sign to “say” so!

So, resist the temptation to stop with the Mealtime Signs. Teach signs for lots of other things your baby might want to talk about—and remember!

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


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