'Born2Sign." "SigningBaby." "Kindersigns." "Signwithme." "Sign2me." "MyBabyCanTalk." A quick Internet search calls up laundry lists of Web sites targeting parents who would like to improve communication with their infants and toddlers. Surf on over to a popular online bookseller and you’ll uncover hundreds of books, DVDs and videos on the same subject. Pare down your online search to just the Chicago area and electronic lists featuring dozens of baby sign language classes being offered in the city and suburbs spring up. The Dummies series of books even added Baby Signing for Dummies to its list of self-help texts at the end of 2006.
The concept being promoted here attempts to sell parents on the idea that children without hearing problems may benefit from learning sign language. Proponents say teaching this non-verbal language can decrease frustration and build intelligence in young learners. But does it work? According to local parents and experts, the answer is a resounding yes.
"Research is showing that kids that are exposed to signs early can still build a language center in their brain before they’re actually capable of speaking," says Denise Boggs, a speech and language pathologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital. "They are building the framework for language earlier than they would be if they weren’t exposed."
Signing before speaking
Kristine Johnson is the co-owner of Bubbles Academy in Chicago, which offers formal seminars in baby sign language and incorporates sign into other classes. Johnson says there is a great demand for these types of programs. Her center has been running six to eight workshops a year for the past two years. "I think that people are tuned into infants and their capabilities," Johnson says. In addition to running baby sign classes, she is also a participant. Johnson is the mother of 2-year-old Kristof. "I began using sign with him at 7 months," Johnson says. "It decreases frustration—it gives them power."
Kindersigns is a worldwide network of baby sign language instructors. Their Web site promotes reduced frustration as one of the general benefits of teaching sign language to a hearing baby or child. The site also suggests that baby sign "enhances receptive and expressive vocabulary" and "accelerates communication." The latter claim is echoed in a February 2004 article in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research by Nina C. Capone of Northwestern University and Children’s Memorial Hospital and Karla K. McGregor of Northwestern University. According to their research, "gesture, speech and language are ‘tightly coupled’ neurologically and developmentally." Their research shows that "manual symbols can aid the transition to advancing language milestones."
This is also supported by a study done at the University of California at Davis by Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. These two researchers are consistently cited by many in the baby signing community, and they co-wrote the book Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. Their study followed signing babies through the age of 8 and showed early signing enhanced verbal language development.
This research refutes one of the most common questions raised with baby sign language: Will teaching sign delay speech?
Boggs says that as long as verbal speech is used in conjunction with sign there should be no delays in speech. "If there isn’t any speech or language delay, they’re always going to replace the sign with the word. But that is why it is always important to say the word in addition to the sign."
That's what Katherine Tossas-Milligan does when using baby sign language with her daughter, Kya, who is now 19 months old. "I always noticed that she was very attentive to my signs and gestures more than my words," Tossas-Milligan says. Kya would mimic both the signs and sounds. Kya is now tri-lingual, speaking English, Spanish and sign. "She will say ‘zapatos, shoes’ and put her little fists together in the sign for shoe. She does all three together."
But all agree that the process is not always quick. "For some children it takes six months to use a sign. Others learn it in three to four weeks," Johnson says.
Boggs says that it's like learning any language. "It might take a month or two before you start seeing them use the signs. You’re not going to see your child the next day signing 10 signs, but even if they’re not doing the signs yet, they are building a connect between language and meaning, and that’s building the framework in the child’s brain."
She suggests beginning sign language at about 6 months because at that age children have the ability to control movements. "I think [at that age] they are starting to become aware of language and that there is a purpose to verbalization—that’s the time that a lot of frustration starts if they don’t get what they want."
Johnson agrees that signing has helped her communicate with her son when there was no other way.
"For functional needs, like when he was hurt or needed help, these were my saving graces. If he couldn’t get a toy in the other room, he would come into the kitchen, do the sign for help and I would follow him, as opposed to him breaking down in front of the toy."
Baby signs vs. ASL
Most area courses are teaching American Sign Language. Some courses and books use songs as a method for teaching early signs, integrating a sign into a popular song.
At Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ann Brinkman, a registered nurse and mother of five, incorporates ASL into its program, which began in 2006. She started with a speech therapist who taught her ASL, and then later was trained to teach baby sign through Sign2Me. Sign2Me teaches instructors to use the native sign languages in the country they are teaching, which in the United States is American Sign Language.
"American Sign Language is not just some baby signs that someone made up. It’s an actual language that people who are hearing impaired use," Brinkman says.
The Sign2Me classes use a method developed by Joseph Garcia, a certified sign language interpreter and researcher at Alaska Pacific University. The program focuses on ASL in part because many signs are manual interpretations of the object they represent and are easy for children to use.
Brinkman says using ASL offers an additional benefit. "If you are teaching your child ASL as a baby, they are learning a second language. ASL is taught at area high schools as a foreign language." Illinois is one of a growing number of states recognizing ASL as a foreign language for high school credit.
Brinkman has continued signing with all her children who are now 13, 12, 10, 8 and 5. She says using ASL helped her kids learn to read. When they had difficulty recognizing a letter, Brinkman would make the ASL sign to help them make an additional connection. It also helps in loud or crowded situations. "It’s just an extra great way to communicate," Brinkman adds.
While Brinkman and her program emphasize ASL, some families use their own signs for specific words. Experts say that's fine as long as it's a sign that children can easily imitate. Parents may find, however, that their children are better able to communicate with other adults if they stick to the more widely recognized ASL signs.
Johnson says the specific method should not be the focus. "The most important thing is connecting with the child. The parent and the child should see each other as equal communicators."
Most programs and books focus on the words for items children use most commonly: "milk" (open and closing a fist, with your little finger to the floor) or "diaper" (make L’s with both hands, turn down near waistband, open and close fingers and thumbs several times). Most also recommend focusing on one or two signs at a time. Experts say using too many signs can "overload" a child.
Brinkman teaches three basic signs for the first month: "milk," "more" and "eat." Sometimes she adds "all done." She recommends keeping it light and fun. "If it isn’t something enjoyable they won’t produce signs as much," Brinkman says. "It really isn’t a good thing to drill signs into your child."
"You’re teaching children a basic vocabulary. You’re teaching them the signs they need," says Children’s Memorial Hospital’s Boggs. She also agrees that whether you use music, ASL or homemade signs, consistency is key. "If you are not doing it exactly the right way, as long as you’re consistent that is what is important." That also means repetition is important. Experts say that if you are going to use baby signs, then you need to use them each and every time you use the word.
Boggs also adds that while sign language is a terrific tool, spoken language should naturally follow. "If a child isn’t saying any words by 15 months [parents] should seek an evaluation."
Bubbles Academy’s Johnson says, once a child responds to a parent’s sign, they are hooked on the benefits of baby sign. She sums it up with a question: "How many people hear a 7-or 8-month-old talking? Never!"
Tips for parents
• Keep it simple. Start with just a few signs.
• Stick with the familiar. Use signs for familiar words or activities—mama, eat, milk, diaper, etc.
• Be consistent. Repeat words and signs with every use and always speak the word with the sign.
• Be patient. It may take several weeks or even months before a child repeats signs back to you.
• Have fun. Baby signing is designed to improve communications—not be a skill that measures your child’s achievement.
• Bubbles Academy, Chicago,
• Children’s Memorial Hospital Baby Signs Class, Chicago
Contact: Denise Boggs (773) 327-0612
• Edward Hospital Baby Signs Class, Naperville Contact: Susan Bard, Perinatal Education Coordinator
• www.sign2me.com lists certified teachers across the Chicagoland area including: Buffalo Grove, Evanston, Oakbrook Terrace
and Olympia Fields
Lenna Scott is a writer living in Buffalo Grove with her husband and two children.