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Hearing or Not: Sign With Your Baby

By Lesa Thomas, Contributing Editor to Hearing Health

Imagine your eight-month old telling you her gums hurt and she needs medication. Or your toddler throwing fewer temper tantrums, crying less, and even becoming more "talkative". These feats are no longer out of reach.
Gesturing or signing to with your baby can ease the frustration of communicating, lead to higher IQ's and create a stronger bond between parent and child. In an article in Research and Discovery, Marilyn Daniels, assistant professor of speech communication at Penn State, contends that for children, sign language might be more natural communication code than spoken English.
Many Parents of hearing children are opting for signs at very early ages. Indeed, in light of the latest from the experts, why not?

Language Development
"The ability to learn language is innate. Every child born, no matter where, has the ability to learn language. In fact, any child at birth has the ability to learn any language. Ultimately they will learn to produce the sounds of the given language of their culture," says Dr. Irma Woods, child development specialist and associate professor at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Language is not speech; speech is verbal communication-the production of sounds. More encompassing than speech, language enables people to interact and share ideas, concepts, and information. Facial expressions and how we use our body when communicating convey meanings and become part of the language code that is acceptable in any society and culture.
Language begins the instant a child is born, crying to convey a need. Shortly afterwards, until about two months of age, babies begin producing "open sounds", vowel sounds like "o-o-o-o-o-o." Thus begins the phonology of a language. While these sounds are initially common to children all over the world, the sounds become differentiated as children age.
Between two and three months, babies begin producing sounds from the back of the throat, like the "k" in kite or the "g" in goat. Between four and six months, they start using their lips to produce sounds like "b" and "p."
Babbling soon follows. By combining sounds, babies are now capable of emitting continuous repetitions of consonants and vowels, as with "ba-ba-ba-ba" or "da-da-da-da." Naturally parents eagerly anticipate the day they will hear their babies' first words and often interpret the babble. For example, if the child is simply practicing a "da" combination, some parents will excitedly assume their baby is asking for daddy.
The parents begin to shorten the babble to produce a "protoword" so the child ultimately will say "dada." Protowords are first words. If a child uses them consistently in the same context, then the words have meanings. As these associations are reinforced, parents will begin to see the emergence of more words.
Around nine months, children start purposefully imitating sounds they hear. During this period, receptive language-the ability to understand and comprehend-develops, followed by expressive language.
At about 12 months, they begin producing words. Although they may not correctly articulate words, babies will consistently use a particular word to connect with something specific. Development is so rapid during this period that two weeks makes a difference.
What is interesting is that around seven to nine months, children begin forming "communicative gestures." Research from the University of Chicago indicates that they initially form these simple "signs" with little input from parents. They are conveying their thoughts in this method because they cannot use the spoken word. For example, they want to be picked up so they put up their arms, which means, "pick me up." They start waving "bye-bye" and understand its meaning. They'll put their fingers to their lips, meaning "quiet." They are using this form of language to convey an understanding of concepts.
Drs. Linds Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, who wrote Baby Signs, suggest that when your child shows an interest in signing or uses gestures to communicate, the time is ripe to introduce signs. Babies develop at unique paces, but usuallythis is around seven to nine months. Learning through play seems to work the best. Take advantage of books, songs, and natural gestures to make learning easier.
As signing makes its way into more homes, parents are finding that their babies are eager to learn and grasp the signs quickly. One mother, Linda Regester, a former special education teacher, says, "It really jump- started the whole language process for us." By the time her daughter Chelsey was a year old, she could speak only a few words-and signed at least 26. A month later, her sign vocabulary had grown to more than 50.
Nouns are the first words babies use. They are eager to know what "that" is, so it's critical that parents name or label things such as hat, bird, flower and broom.
The word "more" tends to be easy for children to use, too. By adding verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, language is naturally expanded. ("More grape juice?")
Signing is not an instructional excercise as much as it is a communication excercise. The signs need to be things the baby will use and understand. Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn advise parens to pick things that your baby would want to talk about. For the purpose of adding vocabulary, make up signs if you don't know them.
Dr. Greene, who has a website devoted to answering questions for parents (www.drgreene.com), recently wrote, "Signs don't have to match anyone else's. Each sign is most effective if it is natural, simple to perform, and if everyone in the family uses both the spoken word and the sign every time."
Parents should take into account things their babies are interested in and that give them the ability to exert some control over their environment, such as swinging, eating, animals, TV, or their favorite storybook character. Natural experiences lead to more successful signing with children. Conceptualization is added with signs like hot, cold, up, down. The goal is communication, not perfection.

Benefits of Signing
Dr. Greene explains that the emotional meltdowns frequently seen between the ages of nine and 30 months are often brought on by the frustration of not being able to communicate. (Imagine what this must be like for children whose deafness hasn't been identified.) Children are able to comprehend more than they can express and have no other way to assert themselves. Given signing tools, the "terrible twos" are less terrible because children are able to communicate.
During an Internet discussion sponsored by Berkley University, "Parent Advice about Baby Sign Language," one mother wrote,"I used only a few of the recommended signs with my first son, starting when he was a year old, but even that little bit was great. We started with request signs like thumb to mouth with a tilting up motion for drink/bottle, and fingers of one hand tapping the opposite for more, which he continued to enthusiastically use even after he used the words as well. His frustration was significantly reduced because he was able to communicate at an earlier age. We also used some simple object and descriptor signs. He's just over four years old now, and teachers often comment that he's very verbal. Don't know if I can credit the signing, but it certainly didn't hurt him!"

Joseph Garcia developed a method of early communication based on American Sign Language. In his book Sign With Your Baby, Garcia supports the idea of signing early with children, maintaining that doing so empowers babies to express their needs and reduces communication-related stress. In addition to the stronger parent/child bond that typically results, Garcia says that parents who communicate with their babies may be less likely to neglect or abuse them.
Acredolo's research indicates that signing "literally builds connections in the kids' brains," and aids with associating cognitive and physical abilities like memory, motor, and attention skills. Indeed, studies show that children who signed at an early age actually have an average IQ of 114 compared with 102 for others after 2nd grade, according to a recent USA Weekend article. Research funded by the National Institutes of Child Health adn Human Development has also documented the advantages of using signs with preverbal children.
Signing children exibit higher interest in books, which can lead to a lifelong love for reading. Renee Evetts reports that her son Zacharia, who is a five-year-old kindergartner, signed the alphabet before he understood the symbols. An avid reader, he uses finger spelling to sound out words and often asks for fingerspelling to help him with pronunciation.
Steve Kokette, in an essay entitled "Why All Kids Should Be Exposed to Sign," reports that enhanced vocabulary most likely accounts for the high reading abilities of children who sign. When kids learn a spoken word in conjunction with its sign, they are more likely to remember the meaning of the word.
Dr. Woods says that language is a method of understanding concepts and we communicate those concepts in symbols. Spoken words are symbols, written words are symbols, and signs are symbols. The more opportunities children have to attach symbols, the better their ability to express and understand language, which likely explains the better test scores.

Signs To Speech
With an emphasis on manual communication, parents are sometimes concerned that spoken language might be delayed. Instead, studies have shown that signing children's verbal language actually progresses faster that their non-signing peers. Signing seems to be a bridge to oral communication; children are naturally drawn to use more language, not less. In fact, their first spoken words are usually the words they had already learned to sign.
As they learn to speak more words, usually between the ages of 24 and 30 months, their use of signs fades away. Dr. Woods offers that parents tend to stop communicative gestures because their children are learning to use expressive language. Natural gestures like "bye-bye" tend to linger, however.
Signs expand the social interaction, abilities, and knowledge base for children. An article in Science News asserts that talkative parents make kids smarter. According to Todd Risley of the University of Alaska, "The more parents talk with their young children, the more good things happen intellectually for those kids later on." When signing is added to the mix, more learning and thus more language is developed.
The Deafness Research Foundation sees only good from the use of signs. President and CEO Jack Wheeler says, "For a hearing baby, signing is a great tool. It's like learning French or Spanish while learning English. Even years ago before all of this research proved the advantages, I used sign with my infant daughter; I am convinced it opened the doors to communication earlier than we might otherwise have seen."
In addition to assisting speech with preverbal children, Steve Kokette reports that research shows that sign helps kids with disabilities other than deafness. "Some kids, especially those with Down Syndrome, autism, speech impediments, and other types of disabilities are more willing to learn spoken language after learning to sign and communicate," says Kokette.
Signing seems to be a key to opening the door of language earlier for many children. Given the opportunity to communicate more effectively, children are afforded a head start on language development while also experiencing less frustration. And parentss, of course, are thrilled at the advantages their children gain as they learn new tools to enhance the communication process. Indeed, maybe the terrible twos don't have to be so terrible.

Reprinted with permission from Hearing Health, May/June 2000

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