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January 27, 2005

Far beyond pattycake is the latest in baby talk

From: - Portland,OR,USA - Jan 27, 2005

Educators and parents believe that teaching toddlers American Sign Language can enhance development

Thursday, January 27, 2005

VANCOUVER Nikki Ekle's hand -- open with its palm toward her body and making small circular motions at chest level -- says it all.

It's a gesture meaning enjoyment or appreciation.

"I feel wonderful about it," says Ekle, who exudes a grandmotherly warmth as she sits cross-legged among a dozen or so babies and toddlers at the Washington School for the Deaf.

Deaf since birth, Ekle had just been asked how she feels about the classroom full of babies and toddlers and their parents, all with normal hearing, learning how to communicate using American Sign Language.

As mothers and fathers across the nation join one of the latest parenting trends -- teaching their hearing young to communicate by sign language even before verbal skills are fully developed -- hard-of-hearing people such as Ekle exult as another barrier between the deaf and hearing worlds tumbles down.

The transformation is significant in Clark County, home of Washington's only state school for the deaf, and where a greater percentage of hearing-impaired and deaf residents are thought to live than anywhere else in the state.

Speaking through interpreter Denise Pfaff, Ekle said, "As I look back, I missed so much interaction. . . . We all played as (hearing and deaf) children, but we couldn't solve problems between us. There were so many barriers."

And so it warms Ekle's heart to see 15-month-old Rowan Gately toddle around the classroom as another teacher reminds parents of the gestures they can make with their fingers, hands and arms to communicate using their youngsters' limited, but growing, vocabulary.

As her daughter explored the classroom, collecting a stuffed animal here and another toy there, Erin Gately explained she and her daughter began weekly American Sign Language lessons when Rowan was 6 months old.

Gately said her daughter's ability to communicate with gestures means less frustration, for daughter and parents. Knowing how to sign, youngsters can make their needs and wants known without resorting to yelling and fussing.

"They are very intelligent, and this gives you both a tool to communicate," said Gately, an industrial engineer who works in Vancouver and lives in Northeast Portland.

"Her first sign was for 'more,' which came in helpful when she was eating," Gately added.

At first, learning was slow. Rowan mastered a word a month, until a month ago, when "her vocabulary just exploded," Gately said, fingers extending wide and hands flying upward, an unofficial gesture to underscore her words.

Rowan can now sign about 30 words and regularly uses about 10.

Another classmate, 18-month-old Samuel, signs more than 60 words -- dog, cat, fire truck, milk, cookie -- though his spoken vocabulary is fewer than 10 words.

In the classroom at the School for the Deaf, Ekle stressed that, contrary to what many people think, American Sign Language is not just another version of English. "It's its own language."

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in a world where so few people used sign language to communicate with the deaf, Ekle said, "sometimes I just didn't get the lessons." And it was lonely: Her parents sent her away from the family home in Bellevue to study at the Vancouver school.

Yet Ekle overcame the barriers, graduating from the School for the Deaf in 1964 and earning a bachelor's degree from Gallaudet University, a school in Washington, D.C., for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. She earned a master's degree in education from Lewis & Clark College in Portland.

Back at the School for the Deaf for 22 years as a sign communications specialist, Ekle said consistency is an important element in teaching anyone to sign.

Parents should also be particularly patient, she said, noting toddlers often aren't precise with their gestures.

Because babies are visual from birth, it isn't too early to start signing to them as early as 3 to 6 months, Ekle added. Currently, the school has two classes open to the public for parents, toddlers and babies. They cost $30 for a 12-week session.

Todd Reeves, the school's superintendent, said research shows hearing youngsters of hearing adults who are taught to sign are able to communicate earlier verbally as well.

"And I know that more and more parents are now asking caretakers and child-care centers whether or not they utilize signing," Reeves sad.

At the child care center at Washington State University Vancouver, director Jan Jewett said one of the benefits of teaching a toddler sign language is that it can advance social and emotional development.

"One of the core skills is the ability to communicate effectively, and until you can communicate, it's hard to understand someone else's point of view," Jewett said.

Rusty Wales, of the Southwest Washington Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said about 28,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people live among the 380,000 residents of Clark County.

Reeves said it is not uncommon for families to choose Vancouver rather than Portland when they relocate to the metropolitan area. The next-closest state school for the deaf is in Salem.

He also noted that graduates from the Vancouver school often remain in Clark County, where employers and landlords have been generally accepting of deaf and hearing-impaired people.

Increasingly, families with young children are joining that more-accepting audience, as Ekle will tell you -- with an open palm moving in a circle at chest height.

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