We went to our first baby sign language play group last week! We are attending these play groups at a local family resource center called Natural Resources and the program is all based on American Sign Language so it's not, like, made-up baby hand motions or anything silly. We went to the intro class about a month ago and I got so excited that I enrolled us in the play group immediately.
So, experts and advocates of baby signing say that babies can learn to communicate through signing earlier than they can communicate verbally. Lots of pediatricians and speech therapists recommend it, especially for kids who are at risk for delayed language, but really for any baby. Learning signs is supposed to facilitate vocabulary development for when the child does start speaking because they have concrete movements to associate with the words. When you sign to a baby, you also say the words - the point isn't to teach them to communicate with the deaf community, the point is to help them learn how to use language. Communicating with deaf people is just a perk.
It is also said that difficult phases (ahem, "terrible twos") can be mitigated by sign language because a major part of the problem is when kids can't let their adults know what's wrong. So the idea is that babies/toddlers will be able to just tell you through signing that they are hungry/tired/hurt/looking for their blue truck instead of just falling to pieces crying about it. We shall see.
I've gotten to see baby signing in action by my friends' toddler, Sagan, who is now 18 months old. He has been using signs since 9 or 10 months, gradually increasing the signs he knows and uses. By 13 months he was able to string signs together like phrases, and now he uses lots of spoken words in addition to signing.
Sagan is in the green pants. He wants the other kid's shovel so he keeps pointing at it and then signing "please" by rubbing his hand on his chest. He also signs "help me" by bringing his hands together.
I am totally sold on the whole thing. As a literacy teacher, I can see how it will be a great language-building tool. Plus once James and I get the hang of it I'll be able to ask him for a glass of red wine from across a loud party or bar ;)