Show Me A Sign

One Mother's Journey into Baby Sign Language

By Melissa Wiley

When I began using sign language with my first baby, I had no idea that one day I would give birth to a child for whom sign would be a vital means of communication. I started teaching simple words in American Sign Language (ASL) to my oldest daughter, Kate, because I'd read in a magazine that sign was a great way to help avoid tantrums and toddler frustration. Babies have shown that they can learn to speak with their hands long before their mouths can shape intelligible words, and I soon discovered that my one-year-old's ability to sign, "Not milk! Juice!" was immensely satisfying to both of us.

I learned about twenty common household words in ASL that came in handy. Among them were, "mommy, daddy, eat, drink," and I taught them first to Kate and later to each of her sisters as they came along. With each child, my husband and I experienced firsthand (so to speak) the benefits of giving our tiny children a way to express their wishes well in advance of when they would have been able to do so with verbal speech. I remember how impressed my mother was at eleven-month-old Erin's politeness: during a meal, she would patiently sign "more please" after every bite. That article had been correct - babies and toddlers have a lot to say, and oftentimes a tantrum is simply the result of frustration over a failure to get the message across. A vocabulary of baby signs seemed to go a long way toward preventing that frustration.

Research shows that sign language promotes verbal language growth and mental development. In a study conducted by the UK's National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, researchers discovered that hearing babies who were taught to sign before they were old enough to speak developed larger vocabularies than their non-signing counterparts. When revisited seven years later, the children who had signed as babies had an average IQ more than ten points higher than the control group.

Carol Wiegle, former director of the Virginia Parent-Infant Outreach program for hearing-impaired babies, is enthusiastic about the many benefits of teaching sign language to very young children. "Babies who are taught sign have access to communication much earlier," Wiegle says. "This helps parents bond with their babies, cuts down on frustration for both the child and the parents and caregivers, and builds on turn-taking and early conversational skills." Wiegle adds, "There is absolutely no research available that indicates any negative effects of early signing with both hearing children and children with hearing loss. Because the adults and children who sign to the baby also speak, the baby is getting the benefit of both an auditory and a visual language."

There are many "baby sign" programs available on the retail market nowadays. One important point to note is that some programs, such as Baby Signs by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, use adapted or invented signs rather than ASL. The authors of these programs have created signs that are the equivalent of the kind of baby-talk adaptations toddlers use when learning to speak in order to make acquisition easier. Many experts caution against their use but as with everything, parents should research and choose what is best for their family and situation.

Rachel Coleman, mother of a deaf child and creator of the Signing Time video and DVD series believes, "Since you are going to take the time to teach and reinforce signs, it makes sense to use signs that are part of a living language that have meaning to the hundreds of thousands of ASL users." She points out that using ASL from the beginning lays a foundation for the future study of the language and goes on to say, "Hearing children who start out as baby signers can comfortably transition into communication with deaf children and adults and take advantage of other ASL materials."

ASL is a language, the language of the deaf community, with its own syntax and grammar, its own unique idioms and expressions. Unlike the baby-signing that some hearing parents do with their children, ASL in its pure form involves using no verbal speech; communication occurs only through gesture and facial expression. ASL can even be a useful tool for preventing temper tantrums in babies.

Many hearing parents of deaf children choose to use a combination of sign language and verbal speech. Advances in cochlear implant technology and high-powered digital hearing aids have made it possible for most children with hearing loss to have access to some degree of auditory information. In addition to being a beautiful and complete language in its own right, sign language can serve as a bridge to verbal language development for these children.

When our fourth child was six months old, my husband and I were shocked to discover he had a significant neurosensory hearing loss. Without the help of hearing aids, Steven can hear only very loud sounds. With digital aids (those marvelous devices!) he can hear a great deal more, including some speech. But the subtle differences between some consonants are difficult for him to differentiate. If I say the word "fever," he'll grin and make his name sign: he thinks I'm saying "Steven."

And there are some consonants he cannot hear at all. Imagine shouting the word "Pizza" at the top of your lungs. No matter how loud you are, the P at the beginning is always going to be a whispery "puh."

With the help of early intervention specialists, we began teaching Steve some ASL, building upon the handful of signs we had used with our first three babies. By the time he was 18 months old, Steve had a vocabulary of around 80 signs and two or three spoken words. He was putting long sentences together, especially when hungry: "Mommy more eat please hungry banana cracker eat eat eat!"

Now, at two years of age, he continues to rely primarily on sign language to communicate his wishes, though he has recently begun to add spoken words as well. Not surprisingly, banana was one of his first words in English, just as it was in ASL.

"The first three years are vital for language development," says Cary Binggeli, an Albemarle County speech therapist who participates in the Infant-Toddler Connection's early intervention program. Binggeli encourages parents of children with hearing loss or speech delay to use sign language for the development of communication skills. "There's a window there we don't want to miss."

Some parents of children with hearing loss worry that a reliance on sign language may prevent their children from ever learning to speak verbally. Parents of children like Steven may find themselves caught in a bewildering crossfire of opposing viewpoints from professionals and opinionated family members.

Carol Wiegle is familiar with the arguments against using sign. "There is," she explains, "one philosophy of educating deaf and hard-of-hearing children which emphasizes the 'auditory only' approach." This approach is referred to as the "audio-verbal therapy" and involves the use of oral communication only, with no signs or gestures of any kind. Some audio-visual therapists even put a hand or card in front of their mouths when they speak to a patient in order to prevent the child from relying on lip-reading instead of listening skills.

However, Wiegle and other experts believe that visual cues are nothing but beneficial.

"It is widely accepted," Wiegle explains, "that children with hearing loss rely on their vision and visual information to understand their world."

My family's experience with Steve has certainly borne out the truth of this statement. He seems to effortlessly blend sign and sound into a complete, and completely charming, means of communication. His first signs were Mommy, Daddy, and the name-signs we gave his sisters. He loves to run through the family litany, signing the names of everyone in succession. Sometimes he'll add, "Steve loves Mommy, Steve loves Daddy," and so on through the list. It melts my heart every time. I think back to the days when, one eye on the illustrations in that magazine article, I first shaped my fingers into the words "more" and "juice" for infant Kate. Those first hesitant signs were stepping stones leading to a bridge that opened up a whole wonderful world of communication for my young son.

Melissa is the author of "The Martha Years" and "The Charlotte Years" books about Laura Ingalls Wilder's grandmothers. Melissa and her husband Scott homeschool their five children in a small town near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Originally published in AlbemarleFamily Living April 2007. For more great stories be sure to visit More Great Reading online or pick up the newest issue of our magazine at a nearby newsstand.

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