Sign language is attracting a new group of enthusiastic practitioners: parents and their infant children. The appeal of such communication has nothing to do with hearing impairments.
Instead, it's about getting in touch with the thought process of babies who can't yet speak.
Jill and Jeff Rupert of Portland, Ore., have learned 25 signs so they can teach them to their hearing baby, Joel. "We're trying sign language to communicate with Joel sooner than we would be able to if we waited for him to talk," says Jill.
The Ruperts are part of a national movement of hearing parents teaching their hearing babies and toddlers American Sign Language (ASL) to help increase communication.
"Signing gives preverbal babies a positive way to get their parents' attention," says Monte Briant, who teaches baby signing in San Diego and is the author of Baby Sign Language Basics: Early Communication for Hearing Babies and Toddlers.
Signing often calms a fussy baby, who may be demanding only because she doesn't understand what is going on.
Ms. Briant's baby objects when she lays him on the changing table but as soon as she says, and signs, "diaper change" he completely relaxes and lets her change his diaper.
"I think he stops fussing because he becomes engaged in my signing," says Briant. "He is only 6 months old and cannot sign the word himself yet, but he understands the sign perfectly."
Although younger babies can't sign yet and only have a passive understanding of what signs mean, older babies can learn to sign.
Joel, 11 months, routinely signs "hungry" and "thirsty." He knows the signs for "bath" and "cookie" and grins ear to ear when his mom and dad use them.
"We say 'bath' and make the sign for bath, and immediately take Joel to the bathtub and put him in," says Rupert. "If he makes the sign for 'hungry' or 'thirsty' we move quickly to feed him or give him his bottle."
Jeff made photocopies from a basic sign dictionary, cut out the illustrations, and made a poster the couple hangs in their kitchen, reminding them to use their signs.
"We try to take the book with us on excursions, so if there is a new experience, we can introduce the new sign," says Jill. "For example, we took it with us to the zoo recently, and on the way there Jeff and I rehearsed the signs for the animals so that we could show them to Joel."
The idea of signing with hearing babies began with the movement's founder, Joseph Garcia, author of Sign With Your Baby.
When Dr. Garcia began working as a deaf interpreter in the late 1970s, he noticed that hearing babies of deaf parents could communicate their needs and desires at a much earlier age than children of parents who could hear.
He began conducting research of the use of American Sign Language with hearing babies of hearing parents at Alaska Pacific University in 1987.
The results astounded him. His research showed that hearing babies who are exposed to signs regularly and consistently at six to seven months of age can begin expressive communication by their eighth or ninth month.
According to Garcia, this process also helps to accelerate the acquisition of verbal language, also.
Garcia went on to develop a practical system in 1999, using 145 ASL signs, for teaching the process to parents. There are now over 600 presenters of this system across the country.
Marilyn Daniels, a professor of speech communication at Pennsylvania State University, has taken Garcia's research further and found that children from babyhood to preschool age who know sign language develop a much wider vocabulary, and that using sign language as part of the curriculum during early years boosts IQ, language, and literacy.
The process of babies signing doesn't happen instantaneously.
A common frustration parents face is when, in the early stages, many of the baby's signs appear to look the same, or the baby uses the same sign for multiple things.
However, says Briant, "If parents keep continuing to sign, and do not get discouraged, one day their baby will suddenly just sign, seemingly out of the blue."