Well-Written Pseudoscience is Still Not Science

I had the recent misfortune of stumbling upon an article written by a speech-language pathologist who is an auditory-verbal therapist. The content of this heinous piece of work was well-written and appeared professional. However, this skilled façade was masking an overall gross miscarriage of research and information that stems from a history of pseudoscience masquerading as real science. Not only am I ashamed that this woman is a part of my field, but I am positive that I lost brain cells reading her work. Below is the original article with my responses added in bold:

 Why Not Baby Signs?

 Even parents who have chosen a listening and spoken language outcome for their children often ask, “Should we use baby signs?” just to fill the gap during the time from identification to cochlear implantation, or identification to those first spoken words.  If you’re to believe the media hype, every parent, those of children with and without hearing loss, is doing it.  So what could be the problem? I would implore this author to look up the word “hype” as she clearly struggles to understand its meaning. Research-based and evidence-based recommendations are not “hype.” Using the word “hype” to degrade legitimate linguistic and neurological evidence is deceitful and appalling.

However, media hype is just that: hype.  A marketing frenzy created by companies that care way more about their bottom line than your child’s development or any kind of real research, making wildly unsubstantiated claims that baby signs will do everything from increase your child’s IQ to solve world hunger (okay, maybe not that last one).  When we really examine the sources, are baby signs all they’re cracked up to be?  Here is what I discuss with parents: Using hyperbolic statements to demean actual research behind bilingual language development is childish and small. It shows that this author’s only tool against the truth is to mock it, as she has no legitimate counterargument.

If you have chosen a listening and spoken language outcome for your child, start in the direction you mean to go.  Devoting time and energy to learning signs, even baby signs, that you plan on dropping later is taking precious time off task and siphoning your energy away from what you’ve identified as your primary goal: becoming the first and best teacher who can help your child learn to listen and talk.  I believe that parents have the right to choose whatever communication method will work best for their family.  But I advise them:  once you choose a communication method, run after it like crazy and give it 100%. That is how the “success stories” in any communication mode are made. It’s extremely presumptuous to assume that these families will be “dropping” signs later. It is impossible to know what will work for that child’s brain. If the child takes to sign language, then that child will NOT be “dropping” signs later. Taking the speaking/listening method and “running after it like crazy” is how you create language deprivation resulting in permanent neurological deficits. The problem with the idea that you should pigeonhole yourself into only the speaking/listening method is that it causes parents to persist with a language that isn’t working for their child for FAR too long. This results in severe and permanent language deficits and lifelong learning deficits simply because someone like this author convinced parents that forcing a round peg into a square hole with all your might and focus will make it go in.  

Another aspect to consider is that baby signs are not full, complete language.  By only signing key words, parents are providing their child reduced language input, when they have at their disposal a full, fluent language (their native language(s)) already in the home.  If you’re talking to your baby and only signing key words (“Do YOU WANT your BOTTLE?  It’s time to take a DRINK.  Are YOU HUNGRY?) it’s like talking to a dog who only hears, “Wah wah wah wah wah LEASH wah wah WALK wah wah TREAT.”  You’re being the Charlie Brown teacher, and your baby is not building the crucial linguistic connections in the brain for a full language system.  (This is another reason why I encourage parents who choose a sign language approach to become fluent… yesterday). This is, quite simply, disgusting and offensive. YOU WANT BOTTLE with eyebrows raised for DO is grammatically correct in American Sign Language. YOU HUNGRY with eyebrows raised for ARE is grammatically correct in American Sign Language. Just because a language doesn’t follow the syntactic structure of YOUR language does not make it “Charlie Brown teacher talk.” Imagine I said that because in French you say Est-ce que tu veux ton biberon?  and “est-ce que” is not the structure we use in English, therefore French is like gibberish and shouldn’t be used with children. Sound asinine? That’s because it is.

The other assertation in this appalling passage is that parents have to be fluent in American Sign Language in order for their child to learn it. This, again, proves that this author has no knowledge of neurolinguistics and should therefore refrain from commenting on language development. You know when American children of immigrants don’t become fluent in English because their parents don’t speak it fluently? Oh that’s right, that doesn’t happen. That is exactly what this author is prescribing to, even though we know that is exemplary pseudoscience.  

The signs taught in baby signs books/videos/DVDs/flashcards (don’t get me started on flashcards) are iconic.  That is, if you’ve ever played a game of charades, you probably know these signs.  They’re signs that make sense because you’re literally acting out or creating a picture of the thing you’re discussing (think about the signs for book, drink, eat, etc.).  If you think about spoken language, there is nothing inherently “book” about the word “book.”  Nothing about how you say “cat” actually means the animal “cat.”  This is an important difference.  We have to help infants and toddlers learn the relationship between words and their referents.  There are non-iconic signs in ASL, but they’re not the ones in the standard baby sign repertoire.  If your goal is spoken English, you’re much better served helping your child establish spoken word-referent connections instead. This paragraph truly shows the level of incompetence this author has surrounding American Sign Language and languages in general. The level of ineptitude displayed in this passage will take me a while to deconstruct, so bear with me.

First of all, ALL languages, spoken and signed, have iconicity (or words/signs that in and of themselves convey their own meaning). That being said, there is a very archaic and unproven belief that iconicity in a language somehow makes it subpar or substandard. This, from a linguistic perspective, is simply untrue and shouldn’t be given any attention. This author’s audacity is the equivalent of me, who knows absolutely no Chinese, saying, “That one Chinese character happens to look like what it means, therefore learning Chinese will hinder your ability to learn English.” Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is.

The examples of signs provided (i.e. book, drink, eat) are somewhat iconic. This is an interesting observation, and that’s the extent of its utility in this context. It has no effect whatsoever on language development any more than learning “baa” which sounds exactly like a sheep, would impair your ability to learn English. In fact, the majority of signs are not iconic at all; nothing about the way you sign “brother” actually means the person “brother.” I would beseech this author to avoid making linguistic assessments of which she has no background or formal knowledge.   

Parents are often sold on the many myths promoted by those who have a significant financial interest in selling baby sign materials.  But do they have any merit?

·          Myth: Baby signs encourage bonding by enabling children to express their needs sooner.  Baby signs serve to decrease parental responsiveness.  There are real, significant, evolutionarily and developmentally important reasons why babies do not talk until they’re around a year old.  Most mothers of infants can identify their baby’s cries and tell you that the infant has distinct sounds for hunger, wetness, or pain.  There’s a purpose for this!  Babies aren’t supposed to tell us what they need — it’s part of the bonding process that helps parents become attuned to their children’s needs.  It may be more convenient for you to have your child “tell” you what he wants, but you are short-circuiting a very important bonding process. Again, I would implore this author to look up the definition of the word “myth.” She has amazingly taken the objective and evidence-based fact that children can produce signs earlier than words and twisted it into blaming parents for being lazy. Preying on parents’ desires for their deaf child to be “normal” by guilting them into pseudoscientific methods is a repulsive practice that needs to stop.  

·          Myth: My child is so smart, he could tell me he wanted more food using sign way before any of the other babies could say it.  This is simple operant conditioning.  If I do X [the sign], I get Y [more food].  You can train a rat to do this.  I don’t think it says much about your child’s long-term intellectual potential.  Isolated signs like this to get what you want are a “trick,” not a full language system. You can’t call something a myth just because it goes against your own personal beliefs. The fact that children can produce signs earlier than spoken words is rooted in objective evidence that has been proven across multiple fields. The fine motor skills of the hands develop prior to the fine motor movements of the lips and tongue.

·          Myth: Because baby signs are marketed as “educational,” they must have value.  Unlike words like “Reduced Fat” or “Caffeine Free,” “Educational” is not a federally regulated label.  Anyone can advertise their products as being “educational” without the slightest hint of research behind them.  At the end of the day, no matter how cute the story is behind the product, or how hard they try to sell you on the idea that this is a “family” production or “by moms, for moms,” these companies care about their bottom line, not your child.  That’s just how capitalism works. No one is “marketing” baby signs. Recommending early access to language for deaf babies and providing parents the resources to do so is simply best practice. Again, because this author has no other counterargument she is resorting to absurdities in an attempt to make a futile point.

So what does the research say about baby signs? Topshee Johnston et al. (2003) performed a comprehensive review of nearly 1,200 studies that had been conducted on baby signs and found that only five showed that baby sign programs had a positive effect on child language… and the positive effects shown in those studies did not last past age two.  An exhaustive review of the evidence showed overwhelmingly neutral/negative effects from baby sign language.  Any positive outcomes noted did not have persistent, long-lasting effects on the child’s language and cognitive development later in life.  By age two, it was impossible to tell the difference between children who had used baby signs and those who had not. For every poorly conducted research article that states this, there is a robust study that states the opposite. This is not a matter of deaf children, but one of basic bilingual language development. Any linguist, developmental scientist, speech-language pathologist, or neurologist worth their salt will tell you that learning a second language NEVER impedes a child’s ability to learn the first language. Ever.  

Kirk et al. (2012), found no evidence to support claims that using baby signing with babies helps to accelerate their language development.  While babies did learn the signs and begin using them before they started talking, they did not learn the associated words any earlier than babies who had not been exposed to baby signs, and did not show any overall enhancement in language development.  The study did find that helping parents become more attentive to their children’s gestures served to increase responsiveness and bonding, but this is a standard part of early intervention in auditory verbal therapy, and not unique to baby sign programs. This study directly contradicts what this author wrote only three paragraphs ago. The study found that helping parents become more attentive to their children’s signs served to increase responsiveness and bonding. Interestingly, this author just stated that “It may be more convenient for you to have your child “tell” you what he wants, but you are short-circuiting a very important bonding process.” I would beware of believing an article written by someone who contradicts herself within the same essay.

In infants with hearing loss who go on to receive cochlear implants, Dr. Susan Nittrouer found that when sign language was used to supplement spoken language, there was no effect on the spoken language of children identified with hearing loss below one year of age. However, for children identified at one year of age or older, there is a negative effect—that is, when you combine spoken language and sign language in children over one year of age, their spoken language suffers.  Basically, if you want to knock yourself out doing baby signs with your infant pre-CI, you’re just exerting energy for no effect on your child’s language.  If you want to use signs after your child receives the CI, you’re working against their listening and spoken language development. Again, the pseudoscience is rich here. Using sign language after your child received a cochlear implant DOES NOT work against their listening and spoken language development. There is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE that supports this and these words should never be uttered again.

If you’re interested in reading the original dross, you can find it here.