January 06, 2004

Baby signing

Judith Berck writes in the NYT about teaching babies to sign before they can talk. The piece opens with an anecdote about a baby from Beaverton OR, presents a few sentences from interviews with Elizabeth Bates (last fall, before she died), and then features the "Babysigns" research of Acredolo, Goodwyn and others, who claim that early use of signing with (hearing) children leads to "faster verbal language development", and even "an advantage of 12 I.Q. points". Babysigns was an industrial-scale enterprise by 1997, and so it's a bit surprising that the NYT writes about this as if it were a new development, some six years after the authors were on Oprah. The article also cites Joseph Garcia, another popular success whose work on signing with infants goes back to 1987. There are new publications, as always, but basically this is a brief review article presented with a misleadingly newsy sort of flavor.

Let me say first that the Babysigns phenomenon is basically all to the good, in my opinion. Here's some research on language that's very popular, that engages some interesting ideas, that is surely doing no one any harm and may be providing some real benefits. It's also a Good Thing that a major newspaper is publishing a piece about it.

However, it's hard not to wish for more from an article like this: some kind of historical sense about the work, and some slightly deeper engagement (if only through hyperlinks...) with the material. For example, the article quotes Bates as saying that "[r]ecent work in neuroscience has shown that the areas in the brain that control the mouth and speech and the areas that control the hands and gestures overlap a great deal and develop together." That's all -- no indication of whose recent work it is, where one can go to learn more, etc.

As another example, consider the relation of the Babysigns results to the work by Tomasello et al. on the role of "episodes of joint attention specifically focused on topics of immediate interest to the child" in speeding language acquisition, and the suggestion that "the effect of symbolic gesturing on verbal development is ... mediated at least in part by increases in the infant's effectiveness at initiating joint attention". This is not hard stuff to understand, it's really thought-provoking, and it's something parents and other caregivers should know about. But it's not mentioned at all in the NYT piece.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 6, 2004 12:07 AM