Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Greatest Irony: Baby Signs

Ever since I became a mother, I was suddenly propelled into the marketing world, and I was bombarded with varying developmental toys, and tools for my son to learn. One of the developmental tool craze was to sell Baby Signs. Of course, the target audience was the hearing parents. It became a fad among hearing parents to teach their babies how to sign. 

The reasons are to teach babies to express themselves to prevent meltdowns, frustration, and anger from not being able to convey what they need from their parents. It alleviates the feeling of helplessness from the parents, wondering why is their child so upset, and what does he/she want from them. Also, the benefits of teaching a second language is vast, and it fosters a child's cognitive development in incredible ways that we can't begin to fathom. 

As a Deaf person, I have a mixed feeling about this for many reasons. I love the fact that my language is finally being recognized as a language, and I have a common ground with many hearing mothers. I enjoy seeing the benefits being reaped among the parents. I like being able to talk about using sign language, and seeing it in a positive light. 

At the same time, what I am torn about is that I meet so many hearing parents of Deaf babies, the hearing parents immediately turn to auditory approaches of oralism, cochlear implants, and speech therapy. They are so quick at wanting to fix their Deaf baby because they are overwhelmed by their grief of not having a hearing child. Are they in wrong for wanting to do this? I don't think so. I do believe that it is very overwhelming, scary, and sad to have a child with a disability. As parents, we want the best for our children, and we worry if we are doing the right thing for them. We worry that they will face hardships in life, having same experiences as their peers, and providing foundation for them to grow from. On top of this, hearing parents are bombarded by doctors, audiologists, and even other parents about what they should do with their Deaf child. The overwhelming majority will tell them to consider cochlear implant, speech therapy, and not to use sign language because it may hinder their ability to learn how to speak. Of course, not all hearing parents are quick to turn to this, and go straight to using sign language, early intervention, and immersing themselves into Deaf culture as much as they can. Even so, this is not very common or at least it is not in my experience among the hearing parents with Deaf children.

Among my Deaf and HOH friends, I only meet a handful people who are like me; who are blessed to have been exposed to sign language first, have had a minimal experience with speech therapy and hearing aids, had interpreters throughout our school careers, and are still using ASL as our primary method of communication. We are comfortable in our skins, our hearing loss, and not needing any hearing aids to get by in the hearing world. It is not that we are without challenges. Even with that, we are pretty okay with where we are. 

Not so many Deaf and HOH people have similar experiences. More often than not, they talk about how they had to go through intensive speech therapy to learn how to speak flawlessly, never quite achieving this feast, using hearing aids to get by, and feeling stuck between wanting to be themselves, and wanting to please their parents. Some eventually ends up rejecting hearing world completely while some others are busy rejecting Deaf world. Some are like me, they are pretty content with being in both worlds. I have noticed that some Deaf adults are very bitter about oralism was pushed upon them, and how they never had a chance to use their native language (ASL) in the first place. I understand that anger; the lifetime of oppression whether intentional or not, and feeling torn between wanting to fit in, and wanting to be yourself. 

It is why I am very uncomfortable at times when I see this very subtle undercurrent of oppression when it comes to Baby Signs. Some hearing parents slam baby signs, claiming that it is going to interfere with a hearing child's speech development, and there is where that underlying current of oppression lies. I am not saying that they are wrong or right for voicing this opinion. I am saying that they are unconsciously harboring that attitude that oralism is the only and the best way to use.

I am uncomfortable seeing people rejoicing at this very popular You-Tube video where a mother cries at the fact that her Deaf baby, having his cochlear implant turned on, hearing for the first time or when a Deaf child utters a single spoken word. Yet, nobody rejoices when a Deaf child explodes in a large vocabulary of signing. I certainly don't remember being praised for learning hundreds of sign when I was a child. I do remember being praised for voicing I LOVE YOU regardless how badly I had sounded. By the way, it is why I am very uncomfortable with speaking words--not because I feel conscious that my words have that Deaf accent, but because I am being praised for something that feels unnatural to me. 

In gist of all this, people praise when their hearing baby signs one or two words at time, and exclaims how great it is to be able for the baby to express her/his need for something. 

This does not make sense to me. 

Does it make any sense to you? 

The Greatest Irony: This cartoon illustrates the ironic paradox of not allowing deaf babies to learn ASL despite the large amount of research showing the benefits of doing so for hearing babies. The benefits of learning ASL can also be enjoyed by deaf babies if we all recognize and accept this fact! Celebrate ASL and Bilingualism for deaf babies everywhere! 


  1. Very interesting post.

    Personally, I've never understood people's fear of anyone learning too much of anything. There is no interference in terms of knowledge, especially for children. Everything just adds to the whole.

    All my kids can finger spell. We got the Signing Time DVDs when my husband was deployed the second time because I needed to use the TV as a babysitter more often than I liked, and figured we may as well all learn something. My son at about a year knew probably about 100 signs. Learning the ASL alphabet was incredibly beneficial for my middle child because she's very physical and being able to speak with her hands was more appealing to her than actually talking. I was really proud of her when she mastered "W" after a whole day of practicing with her pudgy little 2-year-old fingers.

    My sign language is about as good as my Spanish, which is to say not very. But I'm glad I can communicate in another language at least a little, and want that for my kids as well. I think more people knowing sign is a good thing, whatever the initial motivation.

    In terms of the baby with the cochlear implant responding to his mom--well that was just so dear because of the sheer delight on that child's face. I understand the push to aid children in that way as early as possible because it's all connected to brain development and there is a window of time for giving a person a chance to interpret sound and verbal language, and if you don't get to it in time you lose your chance. It's not to say Deaf Culture isn't rich or that you are less of a person if you can't hear, but nobody wants to deny a child all available possibilities.

    Why didn't you get praised when you learned new signs as a child? I find that crazy. I would have praised you to the moon.

    1. I agree with your sentiment when it comes to learning, and how it enriches our knowledge instead of taking away from it. I am not sure why people hold such belief that by teaching sign language will devalue the knowledge, and interfere with speech development. I have not met a single person that was affected, in terms of speech development, by knowing sign language. It is one of those mysteries I would like to solve.

      I find it great that you encouraged your kids to learn sign language.

      In terms of signing and not getting much praise is tied in with oral method of education, which I hope has changed since I was in school, and wanting kids to be normal as much as possible (which is something I don't understand because aren't we all normal to begin with). :)

      I understand your point about the video. I am not razzing the video itself, or the mother's decision to implant her child. It is perfectly okay with me. I do believe that CI has its benefits too, and does not necessarily devalue Deaf culture because by the end of the day, when you take CI off...you are still Deaf, right? I am merely addressing about the implication behind some people's reactions toward that video, and how they believe that speaking and hearing means that the child is now normal. I hope I clarified a bit! :)

      Thank you for sharing your response!! I really enjoy reading what you have to say.

  2. I LOVE THIS POST. I just love it. We have taught Presley a few signs to better communicate - but I honestly never thought of all the complexities behind the baby sign fad in regards to the ASL language and deaf community. As always, I love your perspective, thank you for sharing it!

    1. I am glad you enjoyed this post. :) It was a hard post to write because I had to make sure I was clear in what I wrote about to avoid any misunderstanding or an impression that baby signs was "bad", which it was not, and it was simply to address the difference when it came to teaching Deaf and Hearing babies signs.

  3. I read this post several times to make sure I understood you correctly. As a mom that teaches my kids signs, I never thought of it the way you explained. I was simply trying to make my life easier--the more they can communicate=less yelling by them and less time I spend trying to guess what they want. I've been just as proud of them saying new words as I have been about them signing new words. Sometimes it is so easy to for me to be wrapped up in my own crazy world of parenting and it is nice to see other perspectives. Thank you.

    1. I am not anti-baby sign. I think it is really great that you have taught your kids baby sign, and it does resolve a lot of frustration between the child and the parent! :)

      In the nutshell, this post is referring to multi-factors in a large issue when it comes to Deaf children. Bottom line is, why is it okay for hearing babies to learn sign language yet it is not okay for Deaf babies to learn sign language?


    2. I understand. I guess my point was that I have had the "advantage" of teaching my hearing kids to sign without anyone caring. It was thought provoking to hear your experiences.