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April 1, 2003

First Words

From: Boulder Daily Camera, CO - Apr 1, 2003

Sign language lets babies 'speak' their minds

By Susan Glairon, Camera Staff Writer

Emily Balog is just learning to talk, but she has been telling her parents exactly what she wants for almost a year.

When Emily wants more banana, the 17-month-old toddler closes her hands and brings them together, in the American Sign Language sign for "more." When she wants a bottle of milk she makes a fist, the symbol for milk. Using her tiny fingers, she can even let her parents know when she is hurt or needs help with a toy.

Although sign language is typically used to communicate with the hearing impaired, Emily doesn't have a hearing problem. Suzanne Balog says she first taught her daughter sign language when she was 8 months old because she wanted to know Emily's thoughts. Emily began using sign language one month later.

"It's amazing to me to realize how much she's grown and what concepts she's getting," says Balog, 35, a Boulder resident.

The practice of teaching young children sign language is gaining popularity nationwide. More than 75 cities across the country offer workshops for parents and babies or toddlers. In the Boulder area, several instructors offer classes, and there is a play group for moms and babies learning to sign. Some local preschools have also begun to teach sign language to students to facilitate communication between adults and little ones too young or shy to fully express themselves through words.

Experts say that by 6 to 7 months, babies can remember a sign. At eight months, children can begin to imitate gestures and sign single words. By 24 months, children can sign compound words and full sentences. They say sign language reduces frustration in young children by giving them a means to express themselves before they know how to talk. It also increases parent-child bonding and lets babies communicate vital information, such as if they are hurt, or hungry.

Some research has also shown signing with young children may hasten speech development.

According to a 2000 study funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, young children who learned sign language spoke sooner. By age 2, infants who learned sign language had a vocabulary 50 words higher than non-signing counterparts; by age 3, the children who had learned to sign early had language skills of 4-year-olds, the study said.

Babies can sign before they can talk because of the way their brains develop, says Lesa Martin, an audiologist and baby sign language instructor in Boulder. They communicate with their hands long before they can coordinate their mouths and vocal cords to say words, she says.

"By signing, you're stimulating the language part of the brain," Martin says.

And it's fun for parents, letting them into the heads and worlds of their little ones, Balog says.

For instance, Emily signed "baby," in the supermarket because she was interested in a baby picture on a diaper wrapper. She signs the letter "S," for her teenage half-sister, Simone, before she runs to get her.

Balog also uses sign language as a gentle way to discipline her daughter. Signing "no" or "sit down" is much nicer than saying it repeatedly in a loud voice, she says.

After taking a sign language workshop offered by Martin, Balog began teaching Emily simple words such as "milk" or "all-done," according to the method advocated by baby sign language guru Joseph Garcia, author of "Sign with your Baby" (Northlight Communications: $14.95). Emily signs roughly 60 words and speaks around 15.

To meet other mothers, Balog now also attends Signing Smart, a class/play group in Superior for parents and infants learning sign language. The group is part of Wide-Eyed Learning, sign language playclasses and workshops for babies and parents offered in three states by developmental psychologists and partners Michelle Anthony in Denver and Reyna Lindert, in Portland, Ore. Since early 2002, more than 1,000 children younger than 2 and their parents have learned how to sign through their workshops, Anthony says.

Garcia recommends introducing signs at eye level when your child looks at you and limiting it to three signs for at least a month before adding more. Children older than 1 year learn more quickly and can be taught signs faster.

Anthony says her method emphasizes that toddlers more interested in playing don't have to be looking at the parents to sign. For instance, a mother can sign "car" in front of a toy car the child is playing with instead of insisting her child look at her.

"They learn signs without having to give up what they need to be doing at this developmental stage, which is exploring their world," Anthony says. She also emphasizes teaching words that young children are interested in such as key, ball, fan or light.

"It gives kids control of their own learning," Anthony says. "They bring up topics of interest."

Experts point out that young children have the gross motor but not the fine motor skills to imitate signs precisely and usually will approximate them. For instance, instead of bringing their fingertips to their thumbs and then bringing their hands together to sign the word, "more," they might clap.

Babies don't sign to each other because they are at the developmental stage of playing alongside each other, or parallel play, as opposed to sharing and playing together, Martin says.

Keeping up sign language skills is a good idea because it is a universal language. Martin says signing builds on pre-verbal language, babies' natural tendency to use gestures, such as pointing to get attention or raising hands up to be picked up. In child-care situations it reduces the guesswork in meeting a child's need, bringing down frustration and undesirable behaviors, such as biting, screaming and crying, she says. It also brings more acceptance to kids with special needs, who may have no other way to communicate.

At the Tiny Tim Center in Longmont, signs of functional words such as "more" and abstract ideas such as colors are used to facilitate speech in both typical children and those with special needs.

Dee Shuler-Woodard, a speech therapist at the center says the pre-school uses sign language to give children who can't speak or have trouble articulating a form of communication. But she also teaches it to typical kids, especially if they are shy.

"They get the biggest smile on their face," Shuler-Woodard says." It's easier to take the risk through signing."

Boulder parent Malva Tarasewicz started using sign language with her son Benjamin when he was 2 years old because he stopped talking at 14 months. He was later diagnosed with autism.

Tarasewicz says using sign language allowed her to communicate with her son and minimized his frustration before he learned to speak at age 3. Now 8, he has an advanced vocabulary and excels in math, spelling and music, she says.

Balog also swears by it.

"This gives us an opportunity to communicate long before she can talk," Balog says. "I can see a window into her world."

For more information on Signing Smart,

WHAT:It's a Sign, baby sign language workshop



COST:$50 per person, $80 per couple, includes a sign-language reference guide

CALL:(303) 249-0339 or to register

Contact Susan Glairon at (303) 473-1392 or

Copyright 2002, The Daily Camera and the E.W. Scripps Company. All rights reserved.