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Jewish World Review March 20, 2001 / 25 Adar, 5761

Maria E. Baca

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Consumer Reports

Using sign language with babies -- P.J. Bower, all of 13 months old, sat in a booster seat next to her mom, Sarah, and across from brother Jace, 3, during a supper at home in late January. She opened her mouth for bites of peach. When her mother took a bite for herself, P.J. tapped her arm.

"More water," she requested.

When she'd emptied her water bottle, her father, Larry, refilled it for her.

"Say, 'thank you, Daddy,'" her mother prompted.

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome," her father replied.

During this exchange, P.J.'s parents used their voices and hands; but P.J. "spoke" with her hands alone.

In studies conducted in the past 15 years, researchers have found that many children who are too young to talk with their voices can communicate by using their hands. In addition to its many practical benefits, signing opens a door into a child's mind that otherwise might remain closed for another year, researchers and parents say.

"I'm just amazed that I can communicate with my 1-year-old, who doesn't have any language skills except 'mama' and 'da,'" said Sarah Bower, of Minneapolis.

Despite her verbal limitations, P.J. can use her hands to say "thank you," "please," "up," "down," "more," "baby," "water" and "milk." She can combine words, such as "up, please," and "more milk." And she's learning new signs - and combinations - all the time.

Kelli Klein, also of Minneapolis, started modeling signs for her daughter Mary when Mary was 6 months old. She also taught signs to her daughter Margo, now 4 1/2 years old, so that she could communicate with her little sister, now 16 months old. Klein plans to teach the hand signs to her next child, who will be born any day now. Mary now knows about two dozen signs.

"They're so smart," Klein said. "One of the things we do wrong as parents is underestimate how smart our kids are and how much they understand what's going on."

Linda Acredolo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, began researching baby sign language in 1982 after her year-old daughter, Katie, spontaneously made up a sniffing sign for flower, then responded positively to other signs that Acredolo modeled for her.

Studying Katie and other children in several study groups, Acredolo and her colleagues found that before children are a year old, they often complete much of the brain development that underlies speech - developing their memories, honing their imitation skills and sharpening interest in their surroundings. But most don't develop the physical ability to form understandable speech until almost the end of their second years.

Another researcher, Joseph Garcia, also became interested in babies and sign language in the mid-1980s when he was working on a master's degree at Alaska Pacific University. A sign-language interpreter, Garcia observed that the hearing infants of his deaf friends seemed to communicate with a surprising level of sophistication.

The benefits of signing go beyond simple communication, Garcia and Acredolo said. Consider the following:

- Decreased frustration: Instead of relying on pointing and grunting - or whining - children can specifically tell their parents or caregivers when they are thirsty, hungry, tired, in pain or in need of a change. Signs give children the power to solve their own problems.

- Improved self-esteem: Reaching out and being understood by an adult is a big deal; so is sharing an experience with a loved one. In addition, parents often are more engaged when the communication is two-way.

- Earlier and better verbal communication: If a child makes the sign for bird, the adult might respond, "Yes, that's a bird! Very good! Is that a pretty red bird? Uh-oh, the bird's flying away. Bye bye." Each sign a child makes is met by a rich verbal response from the adult.

"You flood the child with language, and that, we know, facilitates learning to talk," Acredolo said. "The more language they hear, the sooner they learn to talk."

Acredolo and colleague Susan Goodwyn, a professor of psychology and child development at California State University, divided 103 11-month-old children into three groups. The parents of the first group used five signs. The parents of the second set gave verbal training on specific words, and the parents of the third set were given no instructions.

In verbal tests administered at 24 months and when the children were in second grade, the signers outperformed their peers in verbal skills by significant margins. The explanation is simple, Acredolo said. Signing opens to children the possibilities of communication.

Children in the signing group also combined words at an average of 16 months - much earlier than the 20-month average.

- Greater benefits for literacy: Penn State University speech-communications professor Marilyn Daniels found that in kindergarten classrooms where teachers incorporated signs into reading lessons, students consistently scored much higher on reading tests than did non-signing peers in other classes. The students maintained their edge in subsequent years. The conclusion: Students have an additional tool for remembering letters and the sounds they make.

- Utility with older children: Signs are useful for turning admonitions into subtle nudges, and serve as bathroom reminders and etiquette corrections that don't have to be shouted across the room. Even though her son Jace can speak well, Sarah Bower still finds times when signs are appropriate. "At this age, parents say, 'Now say thank you,' 'Now say please.' We can sign that to him for reminders." Signing up

So how do you get started? Experts say that parents can model signs to their children at 6 months or earlier, and can look for a response at anywhere from 8 to 12 months old. The key, they note, is to be patient and consistent.

Writer Maria Elena Baca of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune has a 17-month-old son, Joe, whose current favorite sign is "music." Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS