IM this article to a friend!

November 6, 2003

Look who's talking now

From: The Scotsman, UK - Nov 6, 2003


In a church hall in an affluent suburb of Edinburgh a group of fathers, mothers and babies are sitting around a play mat strewn with toys. This is no ordinary parent and baby social group but one of Scotland’s first baby sign language classes.

The parents at this meeting are learning the Tinytalk system, which teaches babies who can hear to use sign language as a way of communicating with their families.

Susan Kane, a former lawyer, set up the class after seeing an item on a morning television programme and training in babysigning. Her nine-month-old son, Isaac, can now let her know whether he is hungry, thirsty, hot, cold or needs a nappy change.

If he is hungry, Isaac brings his hand to his mouth, and if his nappy needs changing he puts his hand to his waist. If he needs milk, Isaac makes a gesture like a person milking a cow. He can also let her know if he feels sick or wants a biscuit.

Teaching babies sign language before they can talk might sound like one of those middle-class fads like bringing babies up to be bilingual or trying to teach them to read when they can barely sit up straight in a chair.

But in reality, sign language for babies is a much simpler, more practical proposition. Making hand gestures is much easier for very young children than forming sounds and teaching babies to sign cuts down on frustration for both parents and children.

Babysigning in the UK was pioneered by Katie Mayne, a primary school teacher who is also a teacher for the deaf and for children with special needs. She decided to experiment with teaching her own children British Sign Language after realising that babies of deaf parents often learned to sign before they could speak.

"The vocal chords aren’t developed enough but they can use their hands quite well," she said. "Just as you can teach them to wave bye-bye and to play peek-a-boo, you can also teach them to sign."

In working with deaf children, Ms Mayne had noticed that learning sign language often led to a huge boost in confidence and could make a dramatic difference to children with behavioural problems.

She wondered if learning to sign could also cut down on toddler tantrums by giving very young children a way to communicate.

"The results can be mind blowing. Every parent talks about that wonderful moment when your baby suddenly starts telling you what they want.

"Fathers tend to be very, very cynical until they see it happening, but every mother knows that babies understand a lot. You can see the cogs whirring but there is no way they are able to talk properly and that can be frustrating.

"What makes me frustrated is when people see babies as little blobs and they don’t understand why they are having these tantrums."

Although baby sign language might seem like some new and hideous way for middle-class parents to hothouse their children, Ms Kane, now working as a tutor in Edinburgh, prefers to see it as an ingenious way of bringing parents and children closer.

While some sign language aficionados in the United States point to research suggesting children can increase their vocabulary and IQ by learning sign language, Ms Kane believes making children and parents happier is the real benefit.

"Isaac is my third child and he is so laid back. My daughter used to get very frustrated and we had terrible tantrums.

"Normally if a baby cries, you go through a check list; are they hungry? are they thirsty? does their nappy need changing?

"A baby who has been taught how to use sign language can tell you."

Babies can learn to recognise signs themselves from the age of about six months and will usually begin using them after four to six weeks of practice. The basic Tinytalk vocabulary includes 50 common words but parents and children can introduce any number of signs once their children learn the technique.

Research suggests babies’ use of sign language drops away as soon as their vocal chords are developed enough to allow them to form recognisable words.

Not only does sign language make for happier babies, Ms Kane is also convinced it also helps parents to be more relaxed.

"Anything that can cut down on frustration for the baby and the parent has to be a good thing," she said.

Parents who attend Ms Kane’s classes learn about five new signs a week using songs and gestures.

They are shown how to teach their babies the gestures at home, repeating them every day and gently guiding their hands into the signs.

Babies will learn to recognise the gestures, which are the same as those in British Sign Language and will eventually start to form them themselves.

"They won’t sign back until they are six months but you have to persevere. Once they have got the concept, you can introduce more signs," Ms Kane said.

Eventually babies will have a sign language vocabulary of 50 or more signs, making them able to express their needs and thoughts and even their sense of humour to those around them.

Kelly McLellan, a web designer began teaching his daughter Sarah signs when she was three months old. "She really seemed to take to it. I don’t know what the benefits are but it is a fun thing to do and they like it."

Saika Mohamed, who attends the classes with her son, six-month-old Amaan, said: "He is not doing the signs himself but he responds to me doing them.

"I think learning something like this is a way to boost confidence and self esteem."

Parents say the sign language is particularly popular with older siblings, cutting down the sense of irritation of having a baby in the house who takes up a lot of attention, but doesn’t particularly do anything.

Claire Thompson’s four-year-old daughter enjoys practising sign language with 16-month-old Jamie.

"She thinks it’s fantastic. She has been showing it to the other children at her nursery."

Ms Thompson herself enjoys the classes because of the opportunity to spend some time focusing on her younger child.

"It is nice to do something where you are concentrating on the baby, rather than just hauling him around Tesco," she said.

"Also, a lot of these signs are used by deaf children, so I like the idea that if he comes across some children who are deaf he would be able to communicate with them."