The Effect of Repetition in Sign Language Acquisition in Infants

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Updated on Feb 07, 2012

Grade Level: Late Elementary all the way to High School, depending on the complexity of the project. Type: Other (Psychology)


Infants can usually communicate long before they can actually speak understandable words. An entire industry has sprung up around the use of ASL ( American Sign Language) in communicating with babies, but there is very little experimental evidence that it is effective. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, but quantitative data about how well it works is rare. This project aims to provide just that.

Research Questions:

  • What is American Sign Language?
  • When did people begin to use ASL to communicate with infants? Why?
  • What are the different parts of speech?

Over the past few decades, the movement to use modified sign language to communicate with infants and toddlers has grown exponentially In the United States, and it is a big business. The idea behind it is that babies often understand language long before they have the motor skills to say words clearly. Little research has been done, however to bolster these claims. This experiment will help answer how well babies can actually pick up sign language, and how fast.


  • A baby, preferably at least 10 months old.
  • A resource that can teach the experimenter ASL, particularly for babies.
  • A click counter or a VERY reliable memory, in order to record the number of repetitions of certain words.
  • A VERY cooperative mother, in order to enlist her in data collection. First time mothers are not suggested. Ideally, the mother should already have had a child, and be the primary caregiver of the infant in question.

Experimental Procedure

  1. Find a baby over the age of 6 months. It is suggested that the baby either be related to you or be a baby of close friends.
  2. Make a list of 10-20 words. Learn the applicable sign for each word. It is suggested that you use a ‘baby signing’ resource rather than a traditional ASL resource, as babies often do signs a bit differently than older people.
  3. Choose a number of repetitions for each word. Increase the number each time. For example, if you were doing only three words- say ‘apple’, ‘dog’ and ‘eat’- you would assign 10 repetitions to apple, 20 to dog and 30 to eat.
  4. With the baby, show them the sign the assigned number of repetitions each day.
  5. Record how long it takes for the baby to use the sign, and how often the baby uses it. This data will probably have to be collected by the primary care giver. Make sure the primary care giver knows the signs, and bribe them for their help by washing the dishes every day.
  6. When the baby is using all or most of the signs, you can stop taking data.
  7. There are several ways you can graph the data: you can graph how long it took for the baby to use the sign vs. the number of repetitions (line graph), how often the baby uses the sign vs. the number of repetitions, and how quickly different parts of speech (nouns, verbs) are picked up, bearing in mind that you have to consider the repetitions. This last graph is suggested for more complex projects- about high school level- as it has more than one variable.
  8. Make sure you get some photos of the baby!

Terms/Concepts: Language Acquisition; ASL ( American Sign Language); Infant development; Brain Development; Repetition


One of many baby sign videos on youtube:

Baby sign app for the iphone:

Shumit DasGupta has worked for OSHA, UMBS, and Pfizer as a contract researcher, is a ten year veteran in science education, and has taught students in the International Baccalaureate program in both Chicago and San Francisco. Four of his students have made it to states, and one to nationals- the year it was held in Hawaii- and he was sad he couldn't chaperon. He also loves snorkeling.

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