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February 19, 2003

The new baby talk

From: Contra Costa Times, CA - 19 Feb 2003

Clinicians and hearing parents find that babies can sign long before they talk
By Sara Steffens

IT'S NOT that infants don't speak up -- it's just that their complaints are so maddeningly imprecise.

WaaaaaaHH! WaaaahH! Waaahhh ...

What's that supposed to mean, anyway? Is baby hungry? Tired? Bored? Cold? Scared? Wet?

At their wits' end trying to interpret the barrage of fussing and crying, some parents have found a better way to communicate with their pre-verbal infants: basic sign language.

After just a few months, experts say, most tykes can learn how to signal their desire for a bottle, a fresh diaper or an extra nap.

Skeptical? Consider the experience of Berkeley's Clare Woakes, who taught sign language to her daughter Jesse, now 21 months old.

"It was incredible. Last summer, we used to go up to the lake and swim. One day, she signed car, drive and swimming. At 13 months old, she was able to tell us what she wanted to do that afternoon, and she had no words whatsoever."

The process, Woakes admits, didn't happen overnight.

"I thought she wasn't learning at first. I almost gave it up, and all at once they started coming. ...

"Her signs -- often, it's like when they're first starting to talk: A stranger wouldn't have a clue what she's saying, but we know."

Converted, she plans to continue signing with her newborn son, Michael.

Diana Neujahr of Moraga also hopes to sign with her grandson Whitney, age 8 months.

Neujahr's husband, whose parents were born deaf, signed before he spoke, she said. Their daughter also signed before she talked, simply from being exposed to sign language at home.

"What we learned is that they're less frustrated if they learn to sign," Neujahr says. "It reduces stress."

Already sold on the benefits of signing, Neujahr and Woakes joined the small crowd of mothers who converged at Lafayette's Nurture Center last week for an introductory course on signing with infants.

Most babies understand much more than they are able to say, explained instructor Linda Jenkins, a registered nurse who also teaches Lamaze classes.

That's because speaking aloud is a difficult skill to master, requiring the coordination of a number of small facial and tongue muscles. In fact, kids can't usually form simple sentences until at least age 2.

Yet much younger children instinctively begin to use gestures to communicate with others. Teaching a limited vocabulary of simple signs, Jenkins said, just makes things a little more precise.

Experts say the ideal age to begin signing to a child is 6 to 8 months. Within four to six weeks, most kids will begin to sign back.

To start, pick a simple word, such as "more." Use the appropriate sign as you ask, aloud, whether the child wants more of something -- Cheerios, for instance, or bouncing. Be sure the sign is in the child's field of vision!

Or use the sign for nursing (most families choose the "milk" gesture) just before and during breast or bottle feeding.

"Soon, your infants associate that movement with the situation or activity that was taking place when the motion was introduced," writes educator Joseph Garcia, in his book "Sign With Your Baby: How to Communicate With Infants Before They Can Speak."

"They begin to experiment with their own hands and discover they can replicate the movements you make. Receiving reinforcement from you, babies quickly learn that by making this motion, they can communicate their needs and wants."

Garcia, who began his professional career as an interpreter, began researching the benefits of sign language in early childhood development in the mid-1980s.

Researchers had already noticed that the children of deaf parents started using signs much earlier than their counterparts begin to speak.

In his master's thesis, Garcia designed a groundbreaking study showing that infants exposed to signs consistently begin to reproduce them around 8 or 9 months of age.

"This is a wonderful gift from the deaf community to the hearing," says Garcia, who lives in Bellingham, Wash. "It's like giving your child a catapult or a jump forward into communication, which empowers the child."

On a practical level, he adds, "it cuts down dramatically the amount of whining and tantrums."

He should know: His own 13-month-old daughter, Alaina, uses about 70 signs.

Garcia does offer a few caveats for parents: "Don't ask your child to show off. Don't make it a lesson ... allow the child to discover the signs at their own pace. ... And don't worry about what other people think."

Contrary to some parents' fears, Garcia says, learning to sign actually accelerates children's acquisition of spoken language.

"That prejudice that the majority culture (has) about the deaf, that if you sign you can't talk -- where does that come from?" he wonders.

Not only does signing help little ones become familiar with the benefits of sharing their thoughts, it also appears to help develop the general neural infrastructure kids need to communicate, Garcia says.

And in studies conducted at UC Davis, professors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn showed that even years later learning sign language had boosted children's IQ by an average of 12 points, compared with a control group of nonsigning peers.

It's possible, of course, that those extra smarts had more to do with the time and care invested by their parents than any intrinsic value of signing. But early childhood experts agree that any activity that enriches the bond between parent and infant tends also to promote healthy intellectual development.

In any case, says Jenkins, signing is worthwhile if only because it's fun.

Jenkins, who lives in Lafayette, became interested in sign language after a deaf couple enrolled in one of her childbirth classes.

Like Garcia, Jenkins believes in teaching children either American Sign Language (ASL), or Signing Exact English (SEE), rather than the specialized "baby signs" some instructors prefer.

If you're going to learn something, she figures, why not do it the way that stands to be most useful in the long run?

"Learning another language -- any language -- opens and doubles your world."

Sara Steffens writes features for the Times. She can be reached at 925-943-8048 or

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