IM this article to a friend!

December 28, 2003

Why teach babies sign language?

From: Alameda Times-Star, CA - Dec 28, 2003

Dear Mr. Dad: I've been hearing a lot about teaching children sign language. What's the deal? Is it worth doing or is it some kind of scam?

A: A few decades ago, researchers began to notice that hearing-impaired parents who taught their children to sign were able to communicate with them before they were 9 months old. Children with two hearing parents don't usually have much to say until after their first birthday.

If you think about it, using the hands to communicate makes a lot of sense. After all, babies have a lot more control over their fingers and hands than they do over their tongue and mouth.

Besides giving them a way to communicate earlier, signing improves babies' motor skills, builds vocabulary and language abilities, reduces tantrums and frustration and has even been linked with an increase in IQ.

Signing with your baby is good for you, too. When you understand what your baby wants, you'll have fewer tears to deal with and you (and your partner) will be less frustrated. When you're feeling relaxed and in control, parenting is a lot easier and a lot more fun. And that, in turn, will bring you and your baby closer.

Two major baby signing systems are out there. They're similar, but there are some important distinctions.

Joseph Garcia's "Sign with Your Baby" is based solidly on American Sign Language. Most signs your baby will learn are fairly intuitive, such as touching the fingers to the lips for "eat" and hooking the thumbs together and flapping the hands for "butterfly."

Other signs are a little tougher to figure out (touching the thumb to the forehead for "dad" and to the chin for "mom) or may be difficult for little hands (putting the thumb between the first and middle fingers of a fist for "toilet" or holding up the hand as if indicating "five" and lowering the middle and ring fingers for "airplane").

Garcia's philosophy is that if you're going to the trouble to teach your baby a language, you might as well go with a real one. A baby who knows some ASL will be able to communicate with babies (and deaf people of any age) anywhere. And if you're thinking long term, ASL fulfills the language requirement for admission to a growing number of colleges.

Linda Acredolo's and Susan Goodwyn's "Baby Signs" is also based on ASL, but it's more flexible. Their theory is that as your baby isn't going to be using sign language all that long, it's best to make it as easy to learn as possible. So parents are encouraged to modify the ASL signs as they see fit and to invent their own. This could make communication with people outside the family a little tougher. However, most of the signs you and your baby are likely to come up with will be pretty easy to decipher.

Both systems are excellent and both give you and your baby an incredible opportunity to communicate with each other. I like "Baby Signs" a little better, though, because of the flexibility. If you go this route, try to use as many of the ASL signs as you can and modify them only as necessary.

However, if you prefer a more systematic approach or, if any deaf people are in your family, "Sign with Your Baby" is the way to go. And even though some signs aren't completely obvious, if you practice them enough, you'll do fine.

Armin Brott, whose latest book is "Father for Life: A Journey of Joy, Challenge, and Change," hosts KOIT's weekly "Positive Parenting" radio show. Send him your questions c/o Bay Area Living, 4770 Willow Road, Pleasanton, CA 94588 or .

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