Bringing Up Baby with Baby Signs: Language Ideologies and Socialization in Hearing Families

Article excerpt

THIS ARTICLE PRESENTS an analysis of the functional roles of "baby signing" in three hearing families in the United States, as well as a discussion of the social and ideological implications of the practice. "Baby signing" refers to the use of visual-gestural signs between hearing parents and their young hearing children with the goal of earlier and clearer communication, often guided by parenting books, videos, and workshops that are available in the United States and other countries around the world. This practice has been adopted by many families who had no previous knowledge of a natural sign language and no contact with the Deaf community. Unlike previous research on baby signing, which has focused on determining its possible effects on linguistic and cognitive development (e.g., Goodwyn and Acredolo 1998; Goodwyn, Acredolo, and Brown 2000), this article addresses the ways in which three baby-signing families use signs in their daily lives. The discussion is based on the close analysis of family interaction, which the first author videotaped between the fall of 2000 and the spring of 2001. It also considers the motivations that these hearing parents had for signing with their hearing babies.

Parental decisions about baby signing are made in the context of socially prevalent ideologies about language and child rearing. Language ideologies have been defined as "beliefe, or feelings, about languages as used in their social worlds" (Kroskrity 2004, 498), including "their loading of moral and political interests" (Irvine 1989, 255). Evidence for language ideologies held by particular speakers/signers and their communities may sometimes be found in their explicit statements concerning the value of the languages in question but must more often be gleaned from the analysis of statements and behavior for the assumptions that underlie them. Given the power of language ideologies to influence language behavior and language choice, it is important to situate the practice of baby signing within the history of ideologies about sign language and child language acquisition.

The use of signed languages with deaf children has long been an issue of debate in the United States, and the assumed advantages of spoken over signed language have led many hearing parents of deaf children to decide not to expose their children to sign language in their early years (Baynton 1996). The view that sign language is inferior to spoken language (or at least inappropriate for use by hearing people) has led some deaf parents to refrain from signing with their hearing children. This choice has sometimes resulted in difficulties in the children's language development (Sachs, Bard, and Johnson 1981).

In the last decades of the twentieth century, as the use of sign language with deaf children became more accepted by hearing parents and teachers, signs also became common for augmentative communication with hearing children with speech delays or disorders (Bryen and Joyce 1985). Baby signs join this complex mix of emotion-laden sign language practices. The practice of baby signing stems from changes in language ideologies concerning sign language that have been prevalent in the hearing community in the United States; the practice may, in turn, contribute to future ideological changes, as we discuss toward the end of this article. What is new about baby signing is the use of signs with hearing children who have no speech delays and no family or social connection to deafness. Instead of being used to accommodate to hearing loss or developmental delay, signs are now advocated for use with typically developing hearing children in an attempt to compensate for immaturity.

With its focus on prelingual infants-social novices par excellence-the practice of baby signing is perfecdy positioned to play a role in socialization, that is, in "the process through which a child or other novice acquires the knowledge, orientations, and practices that enable him or her to participate effectively and appropriately in the social life of a particular community" (Garrett and Baquedano-Lóopez 2002, 339). …