Before They Talk, They Can 'Sign'

Strolling her toddler into the shoe store recently, Elise Niiler Rowley saw nothing but shoes. But 15-month-old Sonia had her eye on something else. Although she doesn't have many words yet, Sonia was able to tell her mother about it.

"She started flapping her arms, which is her sign for bird," Ms. Rowley says. "I looked around and there was a stuffed parrot hanging from the ceiling. I hadn't noticed it."

Sonia isn't deaf, but her parents started teaching her simple signs when she was about nine months old. Their goal is to help facilitate communication while she learns to speak. Sonia now knows about 30 signs ranging from airplane (arms out to sides) and Cheerio (finger and thumb together) to duck (moving hand in quacking motion) and Papa (two pats on the chest).

Every child learns to wave bye-bye and nod for "yes" or "no." Baby sign language extends that idea to help preverbal children communicate more fully through gestures. What parent doesn't yearn for a window into their child's mind during the long wait for words? Simplified sign language helps alleviate the frustration when a child's ability to understand far exceeds the ability to speak, say advocates.

"The main benefit is it's a lot of fun," says Sonia's father, Michael Rowley. "It's not necessarily to give Sonia a head start in language acquisition or anything like that. It's just a way of connecting."

Yet research suggests that teaching a preverbal baby to gesture does boost language skills. Linda Acredolo, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, began studying the phenomenon 15 years ago when her one-year-old daughter came up with her own spontaneous gestures. First, she began sniffing every time she saw a flower in real life or in a book. Then, she picked up blowing whenever she saw a fish - after watching her mother blow the fish mobile above her bed.

From those early personal experiences, Ms. Acredolo began a long-term research project to determine if signing hinders vocal development in any way. After years of comparative research, Acredolo says the benefits of teaching babies sign language are overwhelming.

"The signing babies were ahead of the pack at almost every measure at every age. They were learning to comprehend language faster, they were learning to talk faster, they were putting words together faster, and they were doing better on the infant IQ tests at two years," she says.

In 1996, Acredolo and her research partner, Susan Goodwyn, an associate professor of psychology at California State University, wrote the book "Baby Signs" (Contemporary Books) to help parents interested in teaching their babies to gesture. The book includes about 50 sign suggestions along with advice.

The suggested signs are often similar to American Sign Language, which is used in the deaf community. But the goal is to keep it simple. "Just make up something on the spot, if you want," Acredolo says. "It's not realistic for parents to teach their babies ASL, and it puts up a barrier if babies have to learn specific signs. This is just transitional."

Once children master the words, they begin to gradually drop the signs. "The words are really much more versatile than the signs," Acredolo says. But signs do help translate baby's early utterances when "ba" can mean anything from ball to bottle. With a gesture added, it's clear what baby is talking about.

Acredolo and Goodwyn contend that signing babies inevitably live in a language-rich environment that fosters rapid vocal development. "When a baby points at a bird and does the bird sign, the parent immediately floods that baby with language," Acredolo says. "They might say: 'Yes, you're right. Look at the pretty birdie. And look here's a blue one over here.' They're getting bathed in vocal language. You know the child is listening because they chose the topic."

The authors recommend beginning to sign with babies at about nine months. Indicators of readiness include learning to wave bye-bye and pointing to objects and "asking" for a label. Games and songs are a good way to introduce gestures. Many children, for example, learn to imitate a spider when singing the "Eensy-weensy spider" song.

"It's not necessary to do flash cards or any kind of real lessons," Acredolo says. "These can just be used in day-to-day routines with parents modeling the signs when they say the word."

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