Dear Dr. Debbie,
Some of my friends are using American Sign Language with their babies and toddlers, which seems to be working to improve communication. These babies have normal hearing and no speech or language issues (the oldest is 20 months). As far as I can imagine, there’s no down side to learning to talk with your hands. My baby is 4 months old and I’m considering trying it. Do you have suggestions of how to get started?
Give Me a Sign
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More and more child care providers and preschool teachers are getting on board with using sign language with all children — both those with communication issues and those who are typically developing. I used sign language with my children (over 30 years ago) and now use it with my grandchildren. It’s wonderful. Clearly understood hand gestures reduce frustration for both the adult and the child due the limitations of speech in the early years.
How It Works
A typically developing child will have at least one clearly understood word at his disposal by 12 months. As with all developmental milestones, the generous range of normal development allows that anytime from 9 months to 15 months is perfectly acceptable. As long as a single word is produced by then, it can be expected that hearing and speech functions are operational. A baby’s use of sign language, however, can come astoundingly earlier. Neurologically, it’s easier for the baby to control his hands than it is to master the complex coordination of jaw, teeth, tongue, lips and breath to make speech sounds. By 4 months a baby is getting control of his hands to grab things, and of course, pull them to his mouth. This is a peak age to be using signs with your baby.
A Little History
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was a private tutor for a deaf child. He went to Europe to investigate their reputedly superior teaching methods. It was he who brought a standard form of manual communication to the U.S. from France. He and Frenchman Laurent Clerc founded the American School for the Deaf in 1814 in Connecticut. By 1857 there were 19 U.S. schools for the deaf using American Sign Language (ASL). In the latter part of the 19th century, William Dwight Whitney, a linguistics professor at Yale, observed that children whose hearing impaired parents were using ASL as the family’s language had a first sign much younger than the usual age for a first spoken word — as young as 6 months as compared to 12 months. This language acquisition oddity went largely unnoticed until an ASL interpreter, Joseph Garcia made the same observation in the 1970’s and studied the phenomenon for his thesis in 1986. Garcia went on to create a business out of teaching parents and caregivers to sign with their babies.
How to Get Started
Hand gestures have long been used to entertain babies with the repetitive movements of action songs and finger plays to the accompaniment of chants or songs. Generations of little ones have delighted in the predictability of the motions to “Pat-a-cake” and “Eency Weency Spider.” To get started, you can gently take hold of tiny hands or wrists to help your baby move to the rhythm of the words. A classic socio-linguistic game is the one in which the adult asks, “How big is baby?” as she helps the baby raise his hands up high for the answer, “So big!” After a few weeks, he will raise his own hands on cue.
Introduce a baby-sized vocabulary of sign language the same as you expose your baby to spoken English. Use specific signs, with accompanying facial gesture, as you talk about the things of importance to him: food, family, feelings, toys, clothes, and nature. There are websites,classes, and even a meet-up group to learn the signs from.
“Food” and “milk” are good first signs. Bring the fingertips of your dominant hand together and raise this hand to your mouth. This can mean “feed me” or “food” or “eat.” Squeeze your fist in front of your face or chest to signify milking a cow. This isn’t exactly how to strip an udder, nor do most babies get their milk this way, but the action contrasts enough from the sign for “food” that it is easy to know whether to offer your baby a bowl of rice cereal or the breast or bottle when he does one or the other. “More” is an all-around useful sign whether he wants you to sing a song again, read another book, or pass the bowl of pretzels. Bring together the fingertips of both hands and tap right and left hand fingertips together a couple of times.
Research has demonstrated both short term and long term benefits of teaching babies to sign. Not only is a communication system in place to facilitate easy understanding of what the baby wants — reducing stress for child and adult, but in addition, his brain development is enhanced for later language learning. Babies who learn to sign are generally ahead of other children in speech. Most families drop signing once speech is well in place (by age 3), but others may continue to add to their signed vocabulary just because it is a fun language to use.
And while all this is great for the child himself, learning ASL beyond baby talk is similar to other bilingual abilities since your child will be able to understand, communicate with and translate for hearing impaired individuals for whom ASL is a “real” language. As with other bilingualism, this opens the way for communication with a wider segment of the world’s population including future co-workers and clients. (See my previous column on the advantages of a second language in the early years.)
You’re absolutely right. There is no down side.
Dr. Debbie will be teaching Baby Sign Language at Chesapeake Children’s Museum for adults and their children 0 to 24 months of age on Tuesdays, July 14 – Aug. 4, 2015, from 9:15 to 10 a.m. Call 410-990-1993 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com