I Saw the Sign

Oh man. Months ago we got our son a DVD that’s supposed to teach him American Sign Language (ASL). Apparently babies can learn to communicate using sign language well before they can speak. At least that’s the premise of Baby Signing Time, the wildly popular series starring Rachel Coleman. Babies must really respond to her, because the series has spawned a multimedia empire.

A Word About Babies and Television

Did you notice how I spelled out television instead of just typing “TV”? It’s because I’m being serious. This is my serious face.

In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics advised against any television for children under two. A decade later, in October of 2009, Disney succumbed to pressure and offered refunds for Baby Einstein videos. This was after years of making misleading educational claims (and grossing $200 million annually from the series). One month ago the AAP softened their guidelines to merely limiting screen time.

The relevant research is easily summarized: For babies, human interaction is far more beneficial than electronic media. As a teaching tool, even the highest quality programming is less effective than humans, and often worthless. And too much early TV exposure can lead to attention problems later on. If Baby Einstein taught us anything, it is that television is not good for babies.

While people are indeed superior teachers, I don’t know sign-language. Ipso facto* I’m really in no position to teach it. Enter Baby Signing Time.

We first heard about the series from our friend Liz, who insisted that her 9 month-old daughter was signing passages from Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Okay that’s a lie. But she really raved about it.

Baby Signing Time is fairly saccharine and patronizing, both musically and thematically. Just a few seconds of this clip is enough to give you an idea:

After repeated viewings, you’ll catch yourself involuntarily singing along. Sure your rendition will be highly sarcastic. You and your partner will tell yourselves that you’re mocking Rachel. But like an advertising jingle that you can’t dislodge, Rachel has gotten inside your head.

Her backstory is compelling. After discovering that her 14 month-old daughter was deaf, Rachel taught herself and her daughter sign language in an effort to facilitate communication. Not only did it work, but apparently the toddler, Leah, was able to convey far more using signs than her peers could with speech. (What I find astonishing is that it apparently took her pediatrician over a year to diagnose Leah’s deafness.)

Rachel is pretty in the plain, approachable way that Bill Clinton finds attractive. She’s brunette and buttery, with hips that testify to her fertility. In adult viewers, she provokes an intense curiosity for what she’s like as a person. After the isolating effects of being home with a baby, some moms report wondering What it would be like to have her over for dinner? Would we be friends? And then, as if in an effort to screw with their heads even more, Rachel undergoes dramatic weight loss for disc three. This has been known to have a motivational effect on moms still struggling with baby weight.

Despite Rachel’s and our encouragement, Fox never really picked up signing in any meaningful way. (For my part, if I ever meet Rachel I can sign, “Time to eat balls.”) After about nine months of periodic viewing, Fox can sign the words for fish, all done, bird and cracker (the latter of which he signs using AASL, or African-American Sign Language). Curiously, despite his 25-word spoken vocabulary, Fox won’t speak the four words for which he knows the signs. Weird, right? Full disclosure: we try to limit our son’s TV consumption, and only turn it on in moments of desperation.
Fuller disclosure: those moments of desperation occur daily.

Our seven month-old son definitely enjoyed watching Rachel sing and sign all over the place. The production values are sort of low, but infants aren’t the most discriminating audience. Strangely, the lame animation and amateur footage work well for a video aimed at babies.

One of the hardest things about assessing children’s programming – from a new parent’s perspective – is suspending your artistic sensibilities. If you’re mostly a fan of Swedish Death Metal, it can be physically painful to hear a rendition of Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore. This problem disappears once your child is old enough to like Pixar, because who can’t tolerate Finding Nemo or WALL•E in the background?

Regardless of educational merit, Fox loved the songs. So much so that on road-trips we’ve been able to defer backseat prison riots by playing a CD of his favorites. The DVD was also useful at home when we needed to keep our son occupied for five or ten minutes. Lastly, we’ve used the DVD as a distraction while feeding Fox, who’s prone to hunger strikes.

Pick up a DVD or two and see for yourself. (Available on Amazon and also the BST website. Be warned that their site feels like a super creepy infomercial† for magicJack.) Baby Signing Time is about the only programming I’ve found that’s wholesome enough to inflict on a baby. Rachel’s telegenic powers are not to be underestimated. She has at her disposal an army of loyal babies, patiently awaiting her silent command.

Okay I’ve gone this whole post without making any deaf jokes. Permit me:

Q: How did Helen Keller burn the side of her face?  A: She answered the iron.

Q: How did she burn the other side?  A: They called back.

(Before you take offense, note that the above was technically not a deaf joke; it makes fun of blindness. So chill.)


* I vow to never again use “ipso facto” in this blog. Or I owe you a million dollars. I swear it. And verbal contracts are binding.
† This is no longer true, as BST has since redesigned their website. Nice to know they’re reading.
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One Response to I Saw the Sign

  1. Darcy Lewis February 9, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    There are an array of easy-to-use books that teach the basics of baby sign. My mom is a speech therapist and uses baby sign language WITH vocabulary on infants (ie, you say “Would you like some milk?” and use the sign for milk at the same time). The kids usually start signing more words and more complicated sentences sooner than they can verbalize it. Sometimes they do resist switching to language for a little bit, but just bear with it, they do switch when they realize that there is more they want to communicate.
    I think doing it everyday while talking with your child integrates it more than plonking them in front of a video does.

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