IM this article to a friend!

April 27, 2003

Babies learn 'sign' before speech

From: Oakland Tribune, CA - Apr 27, 2003

Former deaf educator stresses play in Island classes for hearing infants
By Susan McDonough

Sunday, April 27, 2003 - ALAMEDA -- Jennifer Watt's Sign Language for Babies class is the latest among several in the area teaching basic sign language to parents and their hearing children.

Babies as young as four months learn American Sign Language gestures for such common baby words as more, eat, want and milk -- a one-handed, open- and-close gesture that resembles the movement of milking a cow.

Parents hope the additional nonverbal skills will save a tantrum or two.

Oakland mom Elisa Berall, 40, hoped Watt's six-week class would help her 11-month-old son Liam, communicate before he could speak.

Language tools expand children's neural development, she said, and facilitates a more "flexible" world view, she said.

Liam, who she said, is a "natural communicator," understands the signs for cat and book, and has signed, albeit rudimentarily, the words "more" and "milk."

"He's very good at letting me know what he wants," said Berall, a stay-at-home mom.

Liam points, nods vigorously, and has even made a twisting gesture with his hands to tell his mom to open something.

The sign language they learned in Watt's class "supplements what he has naturally," she said.

Watt, a former deaf educator and now a stay-at-home mom, will offer new classes in May.

Teaching sign language to babies became popular with the publication of "Baby Signs," a 1996 best-seller by University of California, Davis psychology professor Linda Acredelo and Susan Goodwyn.

Their studies showed baby signing reduced frustration in children and enhanced both their intellectual and emotional development, among other things.

A McGill University study showed early exposure to language, including sign language, boosted children's ability to learn a new language later in life.

Watt said most parents take the class simply because they are eager to communicate with their not-yet-verbal children.

Children typically begin using words -- beyond baby babble -- by 12 months, said Dr. Penny Harris, a pediatrician at Alameda Pediatrics.

By 18 months, most have a vocabulary of about three words, she said.

Watt said most children will begin producing signs at eight or nine months, depending on the child and the amount of time parents spend signing to their children.

But is teaching sign language to babies just another way for parents to hyper-educate their children -- universally expressed by a roll of the eyes and a heavy sigh?

Beth Hoch, program coordinator at the Alameda-based Smart Healthy Babies, said as long as lessons are fun and delivered in the context of play, and parents don't expect too much from their children, it should be a positive experience for everyone.

"The main thing is to get on the floor and be with your baby," she said.

"Make that connection. That's really the most important thing."

For information on baby sign language classes, call Jennifer Watt at 814-0231.

©1999-2003 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers