by Stephanie Cook
The benefits of Baby Sign Language (BSL) are widely accepted and it is used all over the world. It is regarded as an effective communication tool that can stimulate learning and help reduce frustration, and the teaching and practicing of it can be a wonderful opportunity for parent and child to bond.
With numerous educational Baby Sign Language videos, games and apps flooding the market, we have to ask: What happens when teaching isn’t facilitated by the parent, in physical and direct proximity, but by an instructional video via a screen?
The first two years of a child’s life are considered critical for brain development, and experts, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics Council warn that children that young of age should not spend any time in front of a TV, computer or other electronic equipment, as any screen time gets in the way of exploring the world by playing and interacting with other people. They claim that any educational material aimed at the under two’s does not have any significant effect on their learning, and may result in a so-called “video deficit.” Others, however, concede that interactive educational media might be of value – as long as you and your child communicate while playing and watching alongside each other.
Let’s find out more.
How do infants learn Baby Sign Language, and how well do they learn it in different circumstances?
In a study facilitated by Shoshana Dayanim and Laura L. Namy and published in Child Development Perspectives, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, researchers observed a group of almost 100 15-month-old infants in different learning environments over a period of four weeks. These infants had all previously been exposed to television or other screens, but none of them had had any prior exposure to Baby Sign Language.
The aim of the study was to measure the rate of overall learning of verbal and gestural labels, sign comprehension and retention of information learned from one week to the next, and the correlation between sign language and verbal language learning – all in different scenarios:
Group 1: infants learning BSL via a video, viewing alone, without a parent present
Group 2: infants learning BSL via a video, co-viewing with a parent
Group 3: infants learning BSL through traditional parental instruction without a video
Group 4: infants not exposed to BSL, just learning verbal labels with a parent
The instructional sources used were a mixture of various commercially available videos, each somewhat differently presented in terms of music, background, and order of signs. What they all had in common was the instructor demonstrating the sign while saying the corresponding word in English. The parent-only group used laboratory-designed picture books for their instruction.
In all three BSL experimental groups, parents were instructed to expose infants to 15–20 minutes of sign instruction at home, 4 days a week for 3 weeks, with no exposure to signs between instructional sessions.
The results, if not altogether surprising, were definitely interesting. After about 2 weeks of exposure to BSL, all infants in groups 1-3 began to show signs of learning, and after four weeks, were able to produce a significant amount of signs.
Interestingly, the study showed that the rate at which the infants increased their verbal learning regarding the 18 items used remained consistent in all four groups. This indicates that the acquisition of verbal language happens naturally, due to daily incidental exposure. Learning to recognize and produce words verbally does not seem to be accelerated by the introduction of Baby Sign Language in this age group.
But how did the BSL experimental groups do?
Although the overall rate of learning and retention of BSL in Group 1, the video-only group, was lower than in Groups 2 and 3, the fact that a significant amount of learning happened clearly indicates that infants under the age of two are able to learn BSL from a video, even without parental support. In fact, numerous studies show that infants are able to imitate a sequence of movements they see only on a screen, and research suggests that this is easier for infants under two than learning verbal labeling through video instruction.
Group 3, the parent-only group, with no screen time whatsoever, showed a much higher rate of learning and remembering the signs taught to them. The parents in this group, however, noted how challenging they found the instructional sessions, having to teach, sustain attention and keep track of signs used without the support of a more dynamic video. This tells us that more commitment is needed for this way of teaching BSL, a fact that might be detrimental to overall success because quality and consistency of teaching might suffer.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest success rate could be observed in Group 2, where infants were exposed to video instruction together with their parents. Video instruction, immediately supported by a parent’s actions, resulted in the highest rate of sign production and retention, despite the fact that infants had to focus on both the screen and their parents. Infants’ brains are quite clearly capable of doing that.
In a nutshell, what all this research tells us is that babies are simply amazing. Their inquisitive little minds are insatiable; they are so adaptable that they will learn, explore and grow whatever their learning environment may be – as long as they feel secure and loved. Of course, nothing comes close to good old parenting, direct interaction with other human beings, whether parents or other close caregivers, and it is really all our little ones need in those first few years of their lives. We shouldn’t forget that. But when educational material in the form of videos or apps can enhance that human interaction, as it does with Baby Sign Language, and eventually get caregivers to devote more attention and time to their children, amazing things can happen. After all, it’s not just babies who learn something new every day.
Stephanie Cook, originally from Germany, is married to an Englishman, is the mother of two amazing girls, and currently resides in Northern California. She love the multicultural nature of her life and enjoys learning something new every day.