The following information gives insight into why I decided to create a standard definition for the concept of “baby sign language, then presents that definition under the heading “American Baby Sign Language”. More information on my thoughts on the subject can be found in an e-book titled Sign Language for Hearing Babies, by Brian Fisher.
“For people with limited sign skills teaching a very young baby, I prefer to avoid calling what we do ‘Sign Language’ for a couple of reasons. First, most hearing parents who teach their child to sign will really only use a few sign words and no grammar. That isn’t really teaching them Sign Language mastery, which is what the term ‘Language” implies. Teaching babies and toddlers even a few signs can be very valuable, but it is not a full language with an adult level vocabulary. How many English words would you expect a foreign visitor in America to have for you to say they ‘spoke English’? That doesn’t even get into the grammar issue.
The other reason I’d like to use another term is because a young baby’s signs are so different than proper ASL signs because of their developmental level. Their signs are more than gestures, so they should get credit for using language, and a young baby’s full vocabulary would only be a few words at most, anyway. Hearing parents who teach their children some signs commonly use the term “baby sign language”. However, that term doesn’t actually mean anything specific, so I want to standardize a recognizable term with a useful definition and explanation. Since the abbreviation BSL is already used to refer to British Sign Language (which is different than American Sign Language), I will use the term ‘American Baby Sign Language’ (ABSL) for the specific situation of hearing parents teaching ASL or Pidgin signs to their baby or toddler. The general term ‘baby sign language’ would still mean pretty much whatever people wanted it to mean, so it could include made up signs and other teaching ideas. A quick definition of American Baby Sign Language would be, ‘ABSL is hand and arm motions, based on ASL or Pidgin signs done to the best of the signer’s ability, used to give young children the ability to communicate until the child becomes fluent in the family’s spoken language.’ In practical terms ABSL:
– allows preverbal babies and young children to use their arms and hands for expressive communication;
– is based on ASL and Pidgin signs used by the majority of American signers, but babies and young children are allowed to use movements based on their developmental level at any given time, then use or grow into ASL or Pidgin signs;
– communication will usually be very simple and need little or no grammar, but if needed, the family’s language grammar can be used;
– uses the child’s developmental level to determine the way teaching is done.
Using that definition, ABSL includes most of what many hearing people are already teaching their baby regarding signing, but it may help them better understand their goals and methods.
I have great respect for ASL and Pidgin. Unfortunately, most hearing people doing baby sign language mangle the language, but we are doing the best we can. ABSL is my attempt to balance our knowledge of what we are doing, in other words, to value our limited sign skills while realizing they are very limited.”
The term “baby sign language” is common, but does not have a specific meaning. To help people interested in the concept have a common understanding to what it is, how it can be done, and reasonable goals, I am using the term “American Baby Sign Language” (ABSL). ABSL encompasses the following ideas:
American Baby Sign Language (ABSL) provides preverbal babies and other children with a simple but useful expressive and receptive language, and supplements the spoken language of verbal children until they are fluent in their family’s spoken language(s).
ABSL does not include the child reaching for things to avoid using sign or verbal communication.
ABSL uses ASL and Pidgin signs that can be easily learned through a variety of common sources. Parents, guardians, babysitters, teachers, therapists, etc., will, to the best of their ability, use and teach proper ASL or Pidgin signs. Babies and other children will be given allowances for their developmental level at any given time; the child will be allowed to sign according to their developmental level and grow into ASL or Pidgin signs unless they are unable to because of a disability.
With ABSL, signs are taught according to the developmental ability of the child. Specifically, spoken words are not used to try to teach signs to preverbal babies, but may be used in addition to a developmentally appropriate teaching technique to help them eventually learn spoken language as well as signs.
Since ABSL will often be taught by people who do not have strong signing skills, and communication will usually be very simple and need little grammar, practitioners may use the family’s language grammar so as to not confuse the child whose primary goal is to learn the parents’ grammar. This will promote the use of signing in the target audience for as long as possible so that children and their families get the maximum benefit. For people wishing to use proper ASL (including the grammar), ASL grammar should be used.
ABSL is not a replacement for the family’s spoken language, and it is not intended be a baby’s primary language for the long term. ABSL is not ASL mastery (practitioners could not be ‘fluent’ in ABSL), but can be a stepping stone to proper Sign Language by increasing vocabulary and learning ASL or Pidgin grammar.
Since ABSL is based on ASL and Pidgin signs practitioners:
– can, on a simple level, communicate with other people who use ASL and Pidgin signs which are used by the majority of signers in America;
– can advance to ASL without learning a new set of signs.
Signs created by an individual at home or a company marketing proprietary signs would not fall under the ABSL designation.
ABSL will not pressure people to learn a certain number of signs. Each person will determine what signs work for them.
This is an attempt to let people know at a high level the benefits, limitations, and methods of teaching a baby some signs.
Of course, individuals and companies using their own techniques and signs would still fall under the general term, “baby sign language”.
People wanting to offer constructive input about ABSL can email me at email@example.com.