Emma and I are sitting on the bed as our cat jumps up. Emma looks at the cat, and then, without hesitation, takes both pointer fingers and brushes them against her cheeks. It's her symbol for "cat."
Emma is learning baby signs. Baby signs are similar to American Sign Language, but the parents and baby determine the signs. The actual sign doesn't matter as long as the motion is agreed on by all in the household.
At 12 months old, Emma is too young to communicate with words. She is just starting to utter words like "hat," "hot," and "hi." But she has a whole repertoire of images and ideas that she communicates to us.
The authors of the book "Baby Signs: How to Talk With your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk" (NTC/Contemporary Publishing, $12) discuss how babies learn language primarily to connect with
other people and to have their needs met. Baby signs, they say, provide a bridge that makes the transition from no language to full-fledged language.
We started teaching Emma signs when she was 7 months old. The motions are ones most infants use instinctively. We started with "more" (pointer finger to palm), "bye" (waving), and "eat" (fingers to mouth).
We were pleased and rewarded when at 9 months, Emma started telling us she wanted
more to eat. She moved on to more baby signs (nap, drink, book, bird, and others).
Some family members questioned us: "Won't that impede her spoken language skills?"
We feel the opposite. It will give Emma a head start on understanding the meaning of words before she can actually talk. When she is ready to speak "book" or any other word, she will already have been using it in its proper context.
Our experience has helped us understand Emma's needs. One afternoon, after she and I had finished shopping at a bookstore, I put Emma into her car seat. As I handed her toys, each one was met with an upset look and an angry roar.
Emma then looked up at me with her big blue eyes and put her palms together and then opened them. I knew that she wanted a book to read. I gave it to her and all was quiet. How incredible that at 12 months she was able to tell me exactly what she wanted.
Not only can signs give young babies a chance to express their needs, but their likes as well. On a recent trip to coastal Maine to visit my husband's family, Emma developed a liking for birds. My father-in-law, an ornithologist, was pleased. She looked at bird paintings and waved her arms excitedly up and down. She perfected the act of pointing and flapping to tell us that a bird had flown by.
If anything has come of our family's use of baby signs, it would be the knowledge that young babies are intelligent, focused individuals, who, if given the chance, will express their needs and desires clearly. For Emma, life without words is not a life without language.
Robin Rhodes-Crowell lives with her family in Canton, N.Y.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor