Baby signing
CBC News Online | March 10, 2004

Reporter: Eve Savory
Producer: Corinne Seminoff
From The National

Baby Ariana

How many times have you looked at your crying, frustrated baby and just wished the poor thing could talk to tell you what’s wrong, what hurts, or what’s needed? An American researcher believes they would, except they lack the ability to form words and say them. So he and a growing number of parents are teaching another method of communication – signing. Never mind baby talk.

Most babies with a wet diaper can only scream and hope a parent gets it. Baby Ariana and her mother can talk about it. That’s because her mother, Rima Dickson, and Ariana speak in baby sign.

Rima Dickson

“It’s very exciting because it’s not only comprehension, it’s giving her a reward,” Rima says. “So the first time she does a sign and I understand what she’s asking for, she’s going to get what she asks for and I think it’s really empowering for her just to be able to have that input into her life a little bit.”

Ariana’s hearing is perfectly normal. At 11?months, it’s speech that eludes her. Speech, but not communication.

“It’s just been great because she has told me that she wants to go to bed, like at 11 months old, a baby saying I want to go to bed, and that logically or intellectually is very mind-boggling to me, that a baby knows her needs that well. That’s just amazing,” Dickson says.

Baby sign is booming in the United States. Who knew toddlers had so much to say?

Researcher Joseph Garcia started the business “Sign With Your Baby” after watching a 10-month-old child communicate in American Sign Language with his deaf parents. It’s taken off big-time.

“My son was opening up his world to me and that would not have been possible without those signs,” Garcia says.

Now Canadian parents of hearing babies are picking it up.

At six or seven months, the babies seem simply stunned by this bewildering world. But baby sign teacher Barb Desmarais says there is stuff going on in these active little brains.

“They have lots to say. They have needs, they have emotions, they love to show you what they know. If they see a bird in the sky or an airplane or a cat or a dog, they love to be able to tell you what they know, and when they’ve got a sign for it, it’s wonderful,” Desmarais says.

“He gets very excited, yes. Particularly with milk,” one mother says. “We do the milk sign and he either throws himself at my chest or just gets very excited. So I’m just taking that as he recognizes it.”

“I know for sure that even though we’re not seeing any signing very often during the eight weeks [course for parents], they will be, as long as the parents keep it up themselves. They will be signing for sure,” Desmarais says.

While it seems contrary to earlier opinion, babies do recognize that a word or a sign can represent, symbolize something else. Janet Jamieson teaches deaf education at the University of British Columbia.

“Babies are able to communicate manually with their chubby little hands at an earlier point in development, several months earlier, than they’re able to co-ordinate all of the hundreds of delicate muscles in the tongue to produce speech,” Jamieson says.

In fact, normal hearing children say their first word at about 12 months. Children of deaf parents start signing at eight months. That’s a four-month gap.

“So all of this tells us that the brain is actually ready to produce language earlier than the tongue and vocal mechanisms are able to allow the child to express that,” Jamieson says.

Rima Dickson learned about this gap between comprehension and speech with her first child Geoffrey. He was 15 months when they started. Suddenly, they had a common language.

“Apple juice. Juice. I just about danced the first time Geoffrey signed. I think the first one he signed was… he did three the very first day. I took the class on the one day. The very next day, he did three of the signs back and I couldn’t believe it. I sent e-mails to the entire family. He’s signing!” Rima says.

“The lack of frustration, I think, is the best way to describe it. Instead of just ‘unh!’ and pointing and us trying to figure out what it is, to have them say specifically… With Geoffrey, we would go outside and he would show me his world. He would see an airplane and sign airplane. He would see a dog and sign dog. He would see a cat and sign cat. It was just showing… like they say that when children start to talk, they’ve got so much to tell you, and just seeing him show me his world from his perspective was just amazing.”

Geoffrey signing

“We know that providing children with early access to signs allows them to communicate concepts and words that they couldn’t pronounce until much later,” Jamieson says. “One example is a sign for toothbrush, which is a very easy sign, but the word ‘toothbrush’ is a very difficult word for a baby to articulate. So this provides the child with one extra tool.”

It doesn’t solve all problems. Even deaf toddlers who sign go through the terrible twos. But it seems to have no downside. It doesn’t slow normal speech development. And it may make children brighter.

One study in California found a spread of 12 IQ points in second grade between children who had learned to sign as babies and those who hadn’t.

Janet Jamieson, however, is cautious. “I think it’s a mistake to think that we’re going to create a better baby doing this,” she says. “Parents who tend to go and take sign language courses for the purpose of teaching their babies sign are very likely to provide a lot of stimulation for their babies in other ways, so we shouldn’t think that sign alone is responsible for any kind of intellectual jump-start that they might have. They have a lot of stimulation in other ways.”

“One of the great things about teaching sign language to a baby when they’re preverbal is that you’re a lot more articulate when you’re speaking with them,” Rima Dickson says. “So when I was teaching Geoffrey words, I would be more conscious. So if I’m saying ‘book,’ I’m saying ‘book, book,’ and saying it five or six times very articulately. So it made me a lot more conscious of how I spoke to them, and I think that it helps them be a lot more articulate.”

Whether or not baby sign will give Geoffrey and Ariana an advantage almost doesn’t matter to the Dicksons. What does matter is that it’s a bond beyond measure.

“I couldn’t imagine not having that communication with them, and I hope that it continues,” Rima says. “And how do you say I love you? I mean, Geoffrey talks to me about everything. It’s great. Absolutely love it. Good!”


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