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Thursday September 19, 2013 MYT 7:15:00 PM
Thursday September 19, 2013 MYT 9:21:06 PM
by jessica belasco
Easy sign language babies can learn.
Child’s bridge to the verbal world.
WHEN 19-month-old Matthew Orozco wants a banana, he holds up one finger and moves his other hand as if peeling the fruit.
When he sees a picture of a bird in a book, he holds up his index finger and thumb, opening and closing them like a bird’s beak. And when he wants more of something, he taps the tips of his fingers together.
Matthew uses several signs in American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with his parents, even though he has normal speech development and no hearing impairments.
“We like to think of him as trilingual,” said his mother, Monica Orozco. “He speaks three languages: English, Spanish and sign. When people see it, they’re amazed.”
She’s one of thousands of parents teaching their babies or toddlers hand signs to allow them to communicate before they learn to speak or to fill in the gaps of limited vocabularies. Advocates say signing can decrease children’s (and parents’) frustration to cut down on tantrums, and even accelerate reading skills and raise children’s IQs.
But not everyone is sold on those claims. Some experts say that while baby signing can be fun and engaging, research doesn’t back up all the hype.
Teaching babies sign language might sound unrealistic, but Melissa Droegemueller, a Baby Signing Time instructor, points out that infants naturally use their hands to communicate.
“They clap, they wave, they blow kisses,” she said. “Signing is a bridge to verbal communication.”
The goal isn’t for children to become fluent in ASL. Instead, they learn signs for common words such as “eat,” “milk,” “change” (as in a diaper) and “more.”
“When you sign ‘milk,’ she opens her mouth and looks around,” said Alicia Cunningham, who brought her seven-month-old daughter, Josephine, to Droegemueller’s class recently.
During the one-hour class, children and their parents learned and practised signs while singing songs, reading books and playing games. As Droegemueller read aloud If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, the group made the signs for “cookie,” “mouse,” hungry” and “eat.” The infants watched or dozed as their parents practiced the signs.
Droegemueller’s daughter, Addie, who was born prematurely and had speech delays, began learning to sign when she was 18 months old at the suggestion of her speech-language pathologist. She was signing and speaking within a month, and Droegemueller began teaching Kate, her second daughter, to sign from birth.
Research on baby signing has been ongoing for decades, although a scene featuring a signing baby in the 2004 movie Meet the Fockers brought the technique into the mainstream, said Monta Z. Briant, author of Baby Sign Language Basics. Now families are able to learn from the dozens of instructional books, DVDs and flashcards that are available. Signing Time television shows have been broadcast on PBS and Nick Jr., a cable channel for children. Signing classes are taught by instructors with companies such as Signing Time Academy, Sign2Me, Baby Signs, Kindersigns and My Smart Hands.
Some parents worry that signing will delay their children’s speech, but Pam Hanna, a speech-language pathologist, said the opposite is true.
“Kids begin talking a lot earlier,” said Hanna, clinic director and speech supervisor at A Plus Pediatric Rehab, which offers a variety of therapies to children and uses the Baby Signs curriculum to teach signing.
“It’s a real great language builder because it’s one-on-one, parent and child, so parents really get back to verbally interacting with the kids, teaching facial expression and nonverbal communication.”
Stimulating the part of the brain that deals with hand gestures stimulates the part of the brain that deals with speech, Hanna said.
But research doesn’t support the claims that baby signing will boost children’s IQs or help them learn to speak or read earlier, said Brenda Seal, professor in the department of hearing, speech, and language sciences at Gallaudet University, the world’s only university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Gestures, such as pointing, are indeed part of typical language acquisition among children, and parents intuitively use gestures with their children to support language learning – think the peeka-boo game, the patty-cake song and Itsy Bitsy Spider.
“Parents who take the time to learn signs are engaging their children in communication,” Seal said. “It’s hard to tease out whether the parents’ own language engagement with their child is the actual cause of language learning or if it’s the signing.”
While babies benefit from gestures as they are learning a spoken language, parents shouldn’t think their children will lag behind if they don’t spend money on baby-signing classes or DVDs, Seal said. She doesn’t discourage baby signing, but she doesn’t like how commercialized it has become, especially when those who are marketing baby signing and often misrepresenting it as ASL are not able to communicate with ASL users.
Still, parents such as Monica Orozco said they’re seen real benefits from signing with their babies.
“By signing, I feel like we communicate well,” Orozco said about Matthew, who knows 20-25 signs. “I have hardly any tantrums with him. He tells me what he wants. He tells me what he needs.”
Parents can sign with their babies from birth, said Briant, although typically they won’t have the long-term memory or body control to start signing back until they’re around 6 to 8 months old.
Because they lack fine motor skills, their signing may not be perfect, but they typically can learn basic movements that their parents will understand.
“It’s the same as if they say ‘wa-wa’ before they say ‘water,’” Briant said. “That’s an approximation of the word. It becomes more precise over time.”
Briant recommends parents teach their children some signs used in the daily routine - “milk,” “sleep,” “eat”- but also teach them signs for concepts such as “dog” or “light” or “music.”
“Those are things your baby really wants to say but has no other way to communicate them,” she said. “They can cry if they’re hungry or they need a diaper change, and you’re going to figure it out. If they want to say, ‘I hear a doggie barking outside’ or ‘I hear an airplane,” or something they can’t point to, they can sign that.” – San Antonio Express-News/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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