Teaching Sign Language Early: Should You or Shouldn't You?
How many times have you watched a baby who's reaching, grunting, staring, or crying and desperately wanted to know what he or she was thinking?
We all know that speech doesn't develop until a baby is about a year old. True speech may not develop until age 2 or later. So we prepare to wait it out and guess what baby is trying to say. Moms and dads just wish there was a way to facilitate conversation.
Lots of moms in Minnesota are taking matters into their own hands-or
fingers that is. Teaching babies sign language is a growing trend that helps parent-child interaction by increasing communication. With simple signs, kids can communicate basic feelings and needs without screaming, crying, or throwing a fit.
But is there a cost to "communicating" at an earlier age? Some experts say it may mean not hearing your child's actual voice until much later.
"I am actually certified in ASL (American Sign Language) and love the language, so you would think I'd be a proponent of teaching it to your baby," says Kate Moynihan, a mother who lives in South Minneapolis. "In my experience, every kid who was taught sign language as a baby has been a late talker. They learn to communicate without speaking at such a young
age and have their needs met, so why would they bother talking?"
Many mothers worry that by teaching babies to sign, their children become dependent on the language and don't bother speaking until much later. Naturally, signing makes sense because babies' motor skills develop so much faster than the muscles and coordination they need to speak, so they're able to pick up the language. Once very young children have learned a handful of "words" and are able to effectively communicate, some mothers worry that their babies' voices could possibly be delayed in maturing because they've already been taught another language.
"I think [signing is] wonderful when they're a baby because it's easier to figure out what they want, and you can teach them manners like 'please' and 'thank you.' I don't think teaching your kids sign language is a bad thing, but I wouldn't choose to do it because I want them talking to me as soon as possible," Moynihan says.
While most mothers initially share Moynihan's concern and some parents have experienced delayed verbal development, others have had lots of luck chatting in silence with their children. Molly Bartness, a mother of two from Savage, had great success teaching her first child, Hannah, sign language at 6 months. Hannah was able to respond and sign out things she wouldn't otherwise be able to say.
At an early age, kids naturally learn quicker, and their little minds are like sponges, soaking up the new information. Molly taught Hannah basic French as well, which Hannah has retained, offering the occasional "Bonjour!" However, with her second child, Ella, she waited a few months longer to start teaching her sign language and the results were not as good.
The Baby Signs Institute, a national organization that offers products and classes around the country, has a
website (www.babysigns.com) devoted to the issue. The institute says that using signs actually enhances language and improves cognitive and social-emotional development. Babies intuitively learn to shake their heads for no and wave to say goodbye to people; signs help them express other feelings.
Many babies naturally point to airplanes, blurt out in excitement at animals, and cry over hunger. Nursery rhymes and bedtime stories have babies associating words with objects on a daily basis. Sign language can come in handy when you're with friends at a restaurant and, instead of throwing a tantrum and screaming just because he or she is thirsty, your small
dining companion can quietly sign for "milk."
Two doctors who are also moms (Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn), founded the Baby Signs Institute when they discovered their babies were spontaneously using gestures to represent words they were not yet able to say. By noticing the infants sniffing for "flower," or flapping their arms for "bird," they thought they'd help perpetuate the process with an infant-parent program.
Their classes, books, puppets, and playthings help babies learn simple signs to communicate important things like being hungry or thirsty, hot or cold, afraid or sad. Gestures help them say "more" to express what they want or "all gone" when they've had enough. This creates a peaceful interaction instead of the tantrums or throwing the plate off the highchair to announce when they're finished eating.
The program claims to have dramatic benefits, such as decreasing frustration for babies and parents, enriching the parent-child bond, boosting emotional development, and-to the contrary of many mothers' beliefs-helping babies talk sooner. Baby Signs has even been proven to increase children's IQs.
The National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development funded two decades of research for Acredolo and Goodwyn to perform long-term studies of signing with hearing babies. The study showed that babies who signed understood a greater number of words, had larger vocabularies, and engaged in more sophisticated play than nonsigning babies. Parents of the signing babies were less frustrated, felt closer to their infants, and enjoyed the newfound communication and conversation.
Sign language has been known to be highly effective for many types of people. As there are several versions of sign language, it's important to know that Baby Signs doesn't use exact ASL signs. Furthermore, several people have started their own companies with other approaches, modifications, products, and information on how to sign with your baby.
"Baby Signs is the original language," says certified instructor Jim Davis, who contacted Acredolo and Goodwyn in 2002, with interest in teaching their program to his community of Brainerd. "The other programs [that teach sign language to babies] quote their research." Davis, a chiropractor who specializes in caring for children and pregnant women, was both hesitant and excited about the Baby Signs studies when he read the book. His wife, a school psychologist who had friends in speech pathology that taught ASL to developmentally challenged students, loved the idea. When pregnant with their first child, they were eager to start signing. His mother, however, was quite skeptical. "I honest-to-goodness tell my classes my mom's first response, 'It may delay speech'," says Jim, adding that most people share that concern. "Kids that learn sign language or Baby Signs end up learning more words sooner as they grow older." "Crawling doesn't slow down walking as signing doesn't slow down talking," says Davis. "It allows them to communicate more fully at an earlier age."
The Davis family started signing with their son, Jonah, when he was 6 months old. Two months later, he started signing back, especially responding to words like "eat" and "more." So Davis, like other certified Baby Signs instructors around the country, started to teach his patients in prenatal courses as well as others through community classes. He uses Baby Signs, which is a modified version of ASL as "babies don't have the fine motor movements with their fingers" to sign fully. For this reason, he says that it's incredibly important to sign and
speak at the same time.
Maple Grove father Antonio Ramos started signing with his son, Gabriel, at 4 months. His wife, who is a speech therapist, teaches ASL to autistic kids, enabling children who are often incapable of speaking to communicate the basic necessities. The Ramos family taught Gabriel basic words and movements like clearing hands away to signify "all done" or crossing the chest to say "please."
Gabriel picked up the signs quickly and has scored high in early assessments for expression. Ramos wonders if his better verbal expression is a direct correlation to early signing. Ramos says he will definitely teach new born-daughter, Mariela, very soon, as signing was a huge help for their family.
There are hundreds of signs within the Baby Signs program and several more in ASL for babies, but Davis says the key is to start with just a few initially and add more later.
"Don't go with 120 signs right away. Choose signs your kids are interested in like milk, dogs, cats, Mommy, or Daddy," says Davis.
His son, Jonah, who's 3 years old now, began to speak at 13 months. Some of the babies in Acredolo and Goodwyn's 1982 study were revisited at 7 and 8 years old. Like Jonah, they learned to talk sooner rather than later; they knew more words and had a higher vocabulary. The children who signed as babies had a mean IQ of 114 compared to the nonsigning control group's mean IQ of 102. Therefore, those children had a 12-point higher IQ than the non-Baby Signs group.
However, Davis warns: "Don't do this to give your child a higher IQ; do it for the emotional development."
He recalls a time when Jonah was in his highchair in the kitchen, while he and his wife were half-listening to him fussing about, whining for something. After bringing him several objects they thought he might want to play with or eat, finally Jonah tapped his arm to sign the equivalent of saying, "look at me." They stopped, looked at him, and realized he was trying to say that he wanted grapes. Once they brought over grapes, Jonah was pleased.
While reflecting back, Davis says, "You realize they've been trying to tell me this all along." Another woman told him that her baby would always scrunch her face and smile when put into her crib at night. The mother thought it was silly, but while reflecting back on it with her child-now a teenager-they realized that when this mother says, "I love you," she herself scrunches her face. Her baby was just trying to say it back.