Dreaming about a wolf and a pumpkin

Mom&Baby Magazine, Spring 2009As I sat in the waiting room at the doctor’s office today, I picked up the Spring 2009 issue of Mom&Baby, a magazine published by FitPregnancy. I flipped through it without too much thought until I came across Dr. Michael Cohen’s advice column.

A question was asked: “What do you think about teaching babies sign language? Is it worth the time and trouble?” As the Deaf mother to two Deaf children, I eagerly read on to see how Dr. Cohen responded. He wrote:

Teaching your baby signs before he can talk is a fun thing for some parents to do, but I think its benefits are limited in scope. What’s more, it may even have some drawbacks.

Proponents say teaching a baby to sign helps him communicate before he can talk and that this prevents frustration and resulting tantrums. But I believe that signing may actually delay a child’s ability to deal with frustration. Basically, a baby will naturally begin to talk when he becomes irritated enough by not being able to speak. Learning sign language may act as a distraction but will not get at the root of frustration. Also, once a baby is able to sign, he is actually able to speak, too – so why not let him go directly to speaking?

In my practice, I also see delays in talking among some babies whose parents practice signing with them. The parents’ enthusiasm actually reinforces the babies’ not talking. This is not a very big deal, however-eventually, they all learn to talk.

The bottom line, in my opinion: If signing with your baby is a fun activity for both of you, do it. But think of it as a game-that’s its main value. It won’t do any real harm, but it won’t work any miracles, either.

I was so disappointed to see his nonchalant, almost negative, response to this. In particular, what bothered me were these words: “…think of it as a game” and “…delay a child’s ability to deal with frustration.”

My daughter, now 20 months old, had a vocabulary of over 100 words by the time she was 12 months old. Today, her vocabulary is well over 200 words – actually, we’ve stopped counting because it’s not about numbers for us, and because there are simply too many words she knows. Rather, it’s about what she says and her ability to express complex, abstract thoughts. She also started signing in sentences well before she was one year old. This is important, because children generally can’t speak (as in vocally) full sentences at that age. In fact, many publications state that the average spoken vocabulary of a one-year-old is between one and three words. See why I swear by the value of sign language?

Let me share an example of my daily interactions with my daughter (my son is only three months old, so he’s not quite signing yet). Yesterday, I bought her a Sesame Street “Look and Find” book. One of the pages had a picture of a wolf and a pumpkin. I showed my daughter the sign for “wolf” (she already knew “pumpkin”) then moved onto the other pages without further ado.

This morning, when I greeted her in her crib, she excitedly signed, “WOLF PUMPKIN WOLF PUMPKIN!” Once out of the crib, she ran to the book, pointed to the wolf, and signed, “DREAM WOLF PUMPKIN DREAM.” She was saying she’d dreamed about that wolf. I’m not sure she fully understands what “dream” means, but she knows the word because she saw a picture of the Cookie Monster dreaming about cookies.  (Think maybe she’s a fan of Sesame Street? Yeah.)

That, to me, shows how babies and toddlers can use sign language to express abstract thoughts. We don’t always realize children have the ability to understand abstract concepts – because they usually can’t tell us. I tire of how people think children who sign have no language, and that the children are simply making “cute” gestures or pictures. Sit with my daughter for 30 minutes, and you will walk away happily exhausted because she talks non-stop, just like her mama, grandmother and great-grandmother. I dare anyone to say that sign language for my children is a “distraction,” like Dr. Cohen claims.

Simply put: sign language is not an obstacle to speech or language development. In fact, the opposite has been found to be true. American Sign Language (ASL) is a stand-alone language, and studies consistently show that ASL actually helps the development of speech and English. Research also shows that babies begin to express themselves in gestures early on, babbling, and that it reduces frustration. That’s probably why baby sign language has become so popular – not because it’s a trend, not because it’s a cute thing to learn, and not because it’s “a game.”  Rather, it’s popular because it works for so many families and children.

“But Dr. Cohen is talking about hearing children,” you may say. True. Still, once again, studies have shown that babies who learn sign language prior to speech development generally use signs to accelerate their English acquisition. Just ask hearing people who have deaf parents and learned ASL before they learned to speak. More often than not, their language skills are superior – and they speak just fine. ASL is hardly a game to the millions of families who use it for daily communication, and to call it such not only promotes a negative attitude, but is offensive to families like mine.

Even with Dr. Cohen’s disclaimer that he was merely sharing his opinion, he should have read up on existent literature showing the enormous benefits of children learning sign language, deaf or hearing. As a medical professional, his opinion carries weight, and so he has an obligation to share accurate, well-researched information. It disheartens me to think of the impact of Dr. Cohen’s opinion on the magazine’s 500,000 readers.

Perhaps I should send Dr. Cohen a tape of my daughter signing and see if he thinks signing is really a game rather than a bona fide language. Heck, my daughter can even tell him about her dreams starring Count von Count, Cookie Monster, Elmo and Oscar.

If you disagree with Dr. Cohen’s perspectives, drop him a line at babybasics@fitpregnancy.com.

Copyrighted material. This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the express written consent of the author.

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Comments

  1. the one and only ridor says:

    Encore!

    I was at Wal*Mart few days ago searching for red mulch and I saw a hearing child (2 or 3 years old) signing some rudimentary signs which I barely recognize as some words for ASL and some invented by hearing peeps. At first, I thought the child was Deaf but I realized it was a hearing child who possessed the basic signs to communicate with his mother who also signed back and forth. shortly afterwards, I asked if her child is deaf .. and she said no. The kid then signed some to me.

    It is not a game. It is not something to relieve an infant’s frustration … it is something to instill a sense of communication which will strengthen their speech & language development in the long run.

    Dr. Cohen obviously learned his stuff primarily by medical views, not by linguistic views. Bah.

    R-

  2. “Dr. Michael Cohen’s Opinion is the Real Distraction”

    Dr. Cohen,

    You call yourself a doctor? Did you take the Hippocratic Oath?

    “Above all, do no harm”

    Do you realize how much harm you’ve caused by sharing your baseless
    “opinion”? Do you realize that hundreds of thousands of deaf babies
    have been and are being denied of their human right to develop a
    language because of the simple destructive myth that signing impedes
    speech development? Do no harm? With your medical degree, you are to
    uphold an academic integrity by sharing professional “opinion” based
    on researches and proven facts such as that sign language increases
    cognitive skills, for example. There is NOT ONE evidence that sign
    language is bad for babies. Sign Language may very well be one of the
    very few modalities that can connect all of humanity on the most
    humane level, which is something that spoken or written modalities can
    never achieve.

    So-called doctor, do your research before you harm any more babies.

    Your Hippocratic Oath should be revoked.

    Ryan Commerson

  3. John Pirone says:

    My response to him – he degrades our language!

    “In my practice, I also see delays in talking among some babies whose parents practice signing with them. The parents’ enthusiasm actually reinforces the babies’ not talking…”

    Dr. Cohen’s observation is purely unfounded and if it is true then how can he refute the argument that many CODAs (thousands of them) are fluent in two languages – English and ASL? They learned ASL first at an early age before they started to learn Spoken English.

    I will support Dr. Cohen if he meant to say, “In my practice, I also see delays in ASL among some babies whose parents practice oral methods with them. The parents’ enthusiasm actually reinforces the babies’ not signing…”

    Dr. Cohen thinks of ASL as a game is oppressive and it totally degrades our language. Who gives him a right to judge a language that he has never acquired? He needs to refrain from making any statements on something he’s unfamiliar with and he needs to do what he’s preached by his medical professors – research! It’s not hard to find American Annals for the Deaf and Oxford’s Journal of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education and they provide many studies that say that ASL actually helps speech development.

    I’d like to think Dr. Cohen’s response as a game because he strategically tells the readers that ASL does not provide any values in one’s speech development. This game needs to put to end and he has to apologize to the deaf community for making a public statement that degrades our language.

  4. Apparently, Dr. Cohen does not realize the value of bilingualism. The ability to acquire two or more language greatly improves the child’s learning later in life. I guess Dr. Cohen supports the ONE language theory and if he says that sign language is a “game” then he does not clearly understand the theory of language.

    You have Vygotsky social Development Theory that states the child learns from traits and the opportunity for a language to be learned. No matter what the language is being taught, the child acquires it and use it to their benefit in order to communicate.

    As a word of warning to the parents, it seems that Dr. Cohen gives the wrong advice then I fear that there are more advice that he gives which goes against the child’s learning development.

    Also, I am a Teacher and I can argue against Dr. Cohen any day.

  5. I agree with everything you said–and yes, send a tape to him!

    Unfortunately, it’s just another example in a long line of doctors in the medical establishment that just don’t get it.

    How would he feel if we said speech is a game? Which I don’t believe, of course, but just to compare? Simply the fact that most people in the world speak and a smaller percentage of us sign doesn’t mean what we use for communication should be trivialized.

    Imagine … if somehow mankind had veered towards manual communication permanently, and never talked. Would be interesting, that.

    J. Parrish Lewis

  6. I have to say I was disappointed to read Dr. Cohen’s opinion on teaching young children sign language. Though I recognize we all have a right to an opinion, I am surprised that his perspective on it is merely “it should be taught as a game” and that it has no real language merit. I am a mother of six hearing children. Before I became a stay-at-home mom I was a full-time certified interpreter. I recognized the value in early communication and jumped at the opportunity to teach my young ones language in any and every form as soon as they were born. I can’t count the times my children have communicated very complete thoughts to me before they were even 10 months old. From astonished “rain gone” signs to “medicine mouth” when they were teething. All but one went on to be an early talker. I am very grateful I took the time to sign with them and would encourage all young moms and dads to do the same. Commitment to it and consistency is the key to success!
    Sincerely,
    Amy

  7. Linsay Darnall, Jr. says:

    I had to shake my head while reading the article because one would think in this day and age with all the push to respect and to accept others’ differences that we would see a progressive attitude toward sign language.

    It is unfortunate that while it took the proponents of (American) sign language decades (centuries, even) to bring ASL to the current level of legitimacy only to have people like Dr. Cohen would use their title and give opinions that discredit everything.

    I was boarding a plane one time and a mother, in the line ahead of me, was holding a (12-18 months old, maybe) baby when it (boy? girl? Can’t tell) saw me with my cowboy hat on and signed “hat”. The mother saw it signing and smiled. “Yes, it is a hat,” the mother affirmed. I smiled back because it felt good that she is using sign language with her baby whether the baby is deaf or hearing.

    I have no idea who is Dr. Cohen but right now anything else he says will be without merit because he has shot himself in his foot. It’s because he had demonstrated casual approach to the question, without research or much forethought, and I shudder when I think of advices he would give to mothers when they have other kind of questions.

  8. Albert Walla says:

    Oh My G-D,
    Whats wrong with the doctor? he has nerve to make the statement in national wide magazines where many parents are reading his articles. They may believe in him. I assume he is Jewish because of his last name. What would we say about Yiddish language? It is only a game? it will hurt the children in real world? Don’t let the parents teach children their Yiddish language because it will delay the children s “real language” in the countries where they live. I am disappointed in Jewish doctor who gives Jewish people bad name. I am Jewish myself. so don’t attack me if you think it is anti jewish.

  9. Keelan Sears says:

    Honestly, I think that it’s ridiculous to say that ASL at a young age hinders any sort of learning from then on. That’s what kids are built for; learning and recognizing patterns. It’s not hard to learn two languages, especially when you’re totally immersed in both of them. The kid is still going to hear people talking around him/her, and still pick it up and learn it whether you want it or not.
    Cohen writes- “The parents’ enthusiasm actually reinforces the babies’ not talking. This is not a very big deal, however-eventually, they all learn to talk”. So then what the hell is the problem? First, Cohen states that “it may have some drawbacks”. Then, only sentences later, ends with the bottom line conclusion that “It won’t do any real harm, but it won’t work any miracles, either”. It’s not even being thought of as a miracle, but an easy way to communicate with your child and get a jumpstart on the second language deal. Dr. Cohen seems like he is trying to dig an issue out of thin air, making a pointless argument that next to no one agrees with. Dr. Cohen isn’t even deaf, so who is he to place to deem a language unsuitable for a child when he probably can’t even comprehend it’s flexibility to express emotion. Really, just a stupid thing to argue.

  10. Steve C. Baldwin, Ph.D. says:

    Comment by: Steve C. Baldwin, Ph.D.

    Subject: Refuting Pediatrician Michael Cohen, M.D.

    Each comment written in response to Dr. Cohen’s advice column, especially Trudy Suggs’ own article is all well taken from different angles and perceptions, which are based mostly on actual experience, prior knowledge and academic studies. I certainly hope you all forwarded your reaction to Fit Pregnancy Magazine, per Suggs’ suggestion. If the magazine’s readership is 500,000 and probably subscribed by 57,2000 pediatricians (from Internet), your comments will definitely provided the other side of veracity. Whether there are other Dr. Cohens out there who profess the same “opinion,” we can only hope that is not the case. Relatively speaking, there are quite a few such ignorant, arrogant, misguided, misinformed and disrespectful doctors with a mindset like Dr. Cohen. Since Greek time, the cancer of ignorance is alive and well.

    It is a matter of sheer coincidence that I am babysitting and housesitting for my hearing daughter and her husband. My hearing grandson is only 15 months old and a ball of energy and already performs his bilingual skills with aplomb, comfort and confidence. He picked up some 35 signs and knows 40 spoken words. My daughter and her husband are not using this approach as a game, nor for the fun of it. Addionally, it is not a fad and does not in any way serves as a distraction, whatever Dr. Cohen means by that perceptive. In due time they are definitely expecting their son to speak, hear and recognize more English words without his feeling frustrated emotionally, mentally or intelligently. Under no circumstances are they expecting a miracle or two. However, it is a wonderful miracle in actuality that the son can handle two languages comfortably and happily.

    From a grandfather’s perspective, it amazes me that my grandson can do things most babies cannot: resort to one sign or two while his mouth is full, code switch in signs and babbling (toddler sounds), and signs concepts spontaneously and naturally. At the same time he is being visual, tactile and physical. In other words, signing allows him to put his five senses to work functionally and intelligently (both hemispheres of the brain). As a certified educator for nearly 40 years, my grandson is not delayed in language, cognizance and sensory development. In summary, my observation is based on research, experience and training. Are drawbacks, distraction, game, frustrations or miracles in vogue here? No overt evidence of Dr. Cohen’s negative opinion at all.

    Dr. Cohen needs to be careful about mixing his assumption, opinion and ignorance together to formulate a misconception. By reading all the comments refuting his advice, maybe he will rethink his opinion, rectify his advice like a real physician and nobly concede his incorrect insight into a domain that is not his area of expertise.

  11. I had to shake my head while reading the article because one would think in this day and age with all the push to respect and to accept others’ differences that we would see a progressive attitude toward sign language.

    It is unfortunate that while it took the proponents of (American) sign language decades (centuries, even) to bring ASL to the current level of legitimacy only to have people like Dr. Cohen would use their title and give opinions that discredit everything.

    I was boarding a plane one time and a mother, in the line ahead of me, was holding a (12-18 months old, maybe) baby when it (boy? girl? Can’t tell) saw me with my cowboy hat on and signed “hat”. The mother saw it signing and smiled. “Yes, it is a hat,” the mother affirmed. I smiled back because it felt good that she is using sign language with her baby whether the baby is deaf or hearing.

    I have no idea who is Dr. Cohen but right now anything else he says will be without merit because he has shot himself in his foot. It’s because he had demonstrated casual approach to the question, without research or much forethought, and I shudder when I think of advices he would give to mothers when they have other kind of questions.