History of Baby Sign Language

Learn the history of Baby Sign Language, from it’s roots in a strange observation made by a 19th century linguist, through to mainstream acceptance in the 2000s.

  • 1800s: William Dwight Whitney discover children in deaf families outperforming hearing peers.
  • 1980s: Dr. Joseph Garcia rediscovers BSL and starts teach signing it to hearing families.
  • 1990s: Prof. Acredolo & Goodwyn’s research shows that it works and that there are enormous benefits.
  • 2000s: gaining widespread acceptance as the evidence mounts.

History of Baby Sign Language

1800s: Whitney’s Curious Observation

William Dwight Whitney made a curious observation, that children in deaf parents are routinely communicating through sign language at 6 months, a year before children in hearing families.

Whitney, a 19th century linguist, was a professor at Yale and an writer of the now ubiquitous Websters dictionary. While studying the deaf community, he remarked on the superior communication abilities of their children. Despite having what people of the time considered the handicap of growing up in a deaf household, these children were making their hearing peers look slow.

Not only are children in deaf families communicating through sign language earlier, they have normal speaking trajectories. Despite having parents that did not speak, children in deaf families learn to speak at the regular age. Signing not only lets them communicate at a younger age, it also helps them learn to speak.

Whitney did not take it much further than that and this curiosity was left largely uninvestigated for more than a century until it was rediscovered in the 1970s.

William Dwight Whiteney
William Dwight Whitney

1980s: Rediscovery & First Steps

Dr. Joseph Garcia, then an ASL interpreter, was the first to take the next step. Dr. Garcia noticed that the children of his deaf friends were communicating with their parents at six months old using sign language and had substantial vocabularies at nine months old. This was also surprising to Dr. Garcia since most children don’t start saying their first few words until twelve months old and will still have a very small vocabulary at two years old. Dr. Garcia wrote about this phenomenon in his 1986 graduate thesis. Dr. Garcia began using Sign Language to teach the children of hearing parents and later started a company to teaching baby sign language.

Jospeh Garcia
Dr. Joseph Garcia

1990s: Research Findings Grow

In the late 1980s, Professor Linda Acredolo noticed her daughter making rudimentary signs. Working with her research partner at the University of California (San Diego), Professor Susan Goodwyn, the pair began teaching the baby more formal signs.

Acredolo and Goodwyn won a series of NIH grants to study Baby Sign Language. Over the next 20 years Professor’s Acredolo and Goodwyn conducted the first comprehensive baby sign language research. Through a series of studies, they showed benefits including:

  • Less frustration and a closer bond
  • A larger speaking vocabulary
  • 12 IQ point advantage

Acredolo & Goodwyn also started to push Baby Sign Language into the mainstream, starting a company to promote signing.

Acredolog & Goodwyn
Professors Acredolo & Goodwyn

Associated with higher IQ

2000s: Going Mainstream

Through the 2000’s acceptance and use of baby sign language has continued to grow. In 2006 PBS began running, the Signing Time series, further growing awareness of the benefits of Baby sign Language. And today signing is used by millions of families and has become an integral part of the program in many early childcare centers.

Baby Sign Language has also been winning praise from professionals, winning an endorsement by the American Academy of Pediatricians in the latest edition of their guide to infant care, Heading Home With Your Newborn.

This site, BabySignLanguage.com, was founded in 2010 to provide free access to Baby Sign Language. We have helped over 2,000,000 families in over 190 countries learn Baby Sign Language. We support this free website through the sale of baby sign language kits. Thank you for your support.

Baby Signing Time

Pediatrician Approved
Baby Sign Language Kit

7 Responses to “History of Baby Sign Language”

  1. Stephanie

    Hi I am currently writing a Thesis on BSL and also had a friend order me the Deluxe Kit. It’s awesome! Great work! I was wondering if you could tell me the source of your information regarding the history of BSL in order to cite properly. Thank you!

    ADMIN – Hi Stephanie,

    There isn’t a single good source for the history of Baby Sign Language. We cobbled together the history by taking the individual stories of Whitney, Garcia, Acredolo, & Goodwyn, as well as looking at the early research papers written by the same.

  2. Kati

    I am a grandmother of 2 boys, we taught the 3 yr old basics like please, thankyou, more, all done, baby, dog… The baby is now 21 months, and is in speech therapy. 6 months ago we were told he was 70% deaf, now they say he has perfect hearing. Other tests are being done to identify the issues with speech. It took him alot longer to catch on to the signs than my kids or his brother. HE is now putting together 2 sings at a time like more & milk when he hands me his cup. I’m so greatful for sites like this one. There is always more to learn.

    Thanks,

  3. Marie Brozenic

    Thank you so much for this wonderful site. I am a new Grandma, and I am excited to learn the signs for myself and my Granddaughter. I wish I would have known about this for my own children, but better late than never. I especially love the videos, since it is sometimes hard to figure out from photos in books and the written word. Thank you so much.

  4. Heather

    I have a 20 month old son an he does not talk. He is in speech therpy but I do not see a change in him. A am just getting started with signing an i hope it helps him

  5. Tricia

    I just found your site last night. I have taken 2 years of ASL, but it was so many years ago I felt really rusty. My son is only 3 and a half months old, I have been signing with him for the past two weeks. Your site and it’s video has really helped jog my memory and boost my confidence. Thanks you so very much for all of your efforts. I look forward to the day my son starts signing back to me. Also to my vocabulary to be ready for his expansion. It will keep the words coming! Thanks again.

  6. Teresa

    My daughter can hear, but cannot speak. She is 22 months and says two words. She, however, has an extensive vocabulary. I have been teaching her signs to allow her to communicate, expecting that soon she would be talking. She is still not talking, but when we use additional baby signs from your website, she is pleased that she can communicate with us. She is now looking for signs for many things. I can say to her “where is the rabbit?” She will find the rabbit and point to it. She can not ask us “where is my rabbit?” I have taken a year of ASL in college and so has my husband, but we are rusty. The video clips of the words are a wonderful help to us. We teach her words as they come up. Her vocabulary is growing faster than we can remember or find the words. To be able to choose a word and see it signed by a person in a video clip is especially helpful. I love what you are doing, and would love to see more signs – actually, all of them! Good work. I will continue to monitor this website and share this discovery with others.

    ADMIN – Hi Teresa,

    We will be adding about 800 new words in the next few months. They have been shot and are currently in post-production.

    B

  7. Martha

    I was wondering if you could tell me if there is specific baby sign language for different languages or dialects or if it is the same across the globe. Thanks

    ADMIN – Hi Martha,

    In the deaf community, there are lots of different sign languages with different gestures and different syntax. For example the Brits use British Sign Language.

    In the baby sign language community, most people use American Sign Language (this is what is here on this site) because there are more resources available. You can use any sign language you like with your kids, just pick one and be consistent.

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