IM this article to a friend!

October 31, 2002

Talking fingers

From: St. Paul Pioneer Press, MN
Oct. 31, 2002

Teaching children to communicate using sign language before they can speak is a growing trend that experts and parents say decreases child frustration.

Pioneer Press

Marilyn Lockie knows all about communication breakdowns. With three toddlers in her home-based day care in Woodbury, she's an expert in that special frustration of facing an 18-month-old who desperately wants to tell her something and just doesn't have the words yet.

Lockie thinks she may have found the key to easing that tension, staving off tantrums for the child and headaches for the caregiver: sign language.

Lockie is part of a growing trend of hearing adults learning to sign to preverbal hearing children. She started putting it into action after a two-hour community education course she took last month through South Washington County schools.

With her younger kids — she also takes care of nine older children — the words are brief and to the point: "more," "milk," "diaper change."

"They're starting to sign back, at least repeating what I show them," said Lockie. "Nadia is about a year and a half, and she's not talking much, but she's starting to sign."

Denise Meyer teaches the two-hour introductory course Lockie took, as well as an advanced session; the classes are offered through community education departments throughout the metro area. She says baby sign language for the non-hearing-impaired has been around in the United States for a good 10 to 15 years, but has begun to take off in the Twin Cities area only in the past year or so.

She studied sign language in college and began using it with her own daughter, now 14 months old. Adding movement to learning can be a real boon for the child, she said. Besides, she figured, "if chimps can learn this, so can babies."

She said her child has been signing since she was about 7 months old, and now uses about 40 to 45 signs and understands about 35 more. "She asks for what she wants. She doesn't need to cry and wait for us to figure it out," Meyer said.

Teaching hearing kids to sign before they can speak will not impede their language development, she said, as long as parents and caregivers also say the word as they sign it. In fact, she said, some research shows it can actually help children with language acquisition, and there have even been claims that doing so can help raise a child's IQ.

But Meyer shies away from these claims of incipient Einsteins; those goals should not be the primary motivation for teaching babies to sign.

"That takes the fun out of it," she said. Rather, "it's a great way to decrease frustration and increase bonding. Any time a child feels like 'I can really trust someone, I can expect to communicate or at least get my message across,' then she's going to feel more secure."

If the child does do better academically, she said, that's icing on the cake.

Parents from the Woodbury class have been enthusiastic about their efforts in the few weeks since they started signing to their kids.

Kelley Puppe says she has been signing consistently to her 9-month-old twins, Leah and Michelle, and Michelle has started to sign back "milk." Leah has been less interested, although she seems to be paying more attention, Puppe said. And "they both definitely understand 'milk.' "

Her 6-year-old daughter also is learning to sign and "loves it," said Puppe.

Signing has also had unexpected benefits for Puppe. "Since I've been signing, I talk to them more. It used to be when we were eating, I'd just kind of feed them. Now, as I say and sign the words to them, I engage with them," she said. "So Mom's enjoying it more, too."

© 2002 Pioneer Press