By Darrin & Sara Moir
Ever wonder what’s really going on in your baby’s mind? With signing, once solely the domain of the deaf community, now you can begin to find out!
Baby signing all began with two separate research projects developed in the United States in the 1980s.
Joseph Garcia, a student at the University of Alaska, took an interest in baby sign language when he noticed his deaf friends’ babies were very advanced in sign language by as young as nine months old. This became even more apparent when he compared the communication skills of the signing babies to those that had hearing parents and were hardly communicating at all. Thus, his own son became a test subject for his two programs he developed, “Sign With Your Baby” and “Sign 2 Me.”
Around this same time Dr. Linda Acredolo and her research partner, Dr. Susan Goodwyn, began a different research project after Acredelo noticed her own daughter using signals to communicate. Through their research, they found that signing subjects out-performed non-signing subjects in many areas of cognition and language development. These results led to the development of their signing program, “Baby Talk.”
Since then, fascination with the possibilities of baby signing has increased greatly. If you go onto any websites promoting products related to baby sign language, you might find their list of benefits a bit longer than the ones found here. I mean, who doesn’t want their child to have a high IQ, think creatively, and be able to lead a conversation at the age of two!? Then again, what two- year-old doesn’t enjoy dominating the conversation, sign language or not? Still, baby sign is one parenting fad that has definite benefits.
One of the major perks to teaching your baby sign language is the lowering of what one might call the “daily whine level.” Once your baby begins signing back, you’ll notice the whine level drops from an alarming “red” level to a more harmless “blue” or “green.” It’s simple; when your child is less frustrated, you are less frustrated. Plus, it’s much easier to understand a little flick of the wrists letting you know he or she is done being in the high chair than to pick that meal up off the floor one more time! (Consider this the fine print: It doesn’t work that way every time. It just reduces the likelihood.) For the most part, I think a lot of us would start chucking food onto the floor if we were strapped into a chair and nobody paid attention to the fact that we were done eating thirty seconds ago!
Another benefit to using sign language is that your baby’s increased ability to communicate helps boost his or her self-esteem. Anytime people have a stronger sense of having a voice, they’re going to become more confident. This is why it’s so important that parents not correct a child’s sign if it’s a little different than how it’s “supposed to be.” Instead, think of it as a cute accent. After all, no one speaks exactly alike in any other language, so why should it be any different for sign language? When we first started teaching our son the sign for apple, twisting the pointer finger knuckle against one’s cheek, his initial response was to stuff his pointer finger in his ear canal and start twisting away. Even though it was sad to see the ear canal version go, he eventually started signing it on his cheek like Mommy and Daddy, without our ever having to correct him. If you can tell what your child’s trying to sign, acknowledge it right away and encourage him or her to keep using this new sign.
That leads me to our final reason for teaching our children sign language – expressiveness. There is no doubt that teaching your children language helps them become more expressive. It isn’t so much that sign language makes them more expressive people. It simply gives them more tools with which to work, using hands, facial expressions, sometimes the whole body to express a thought, idea or word.
For example, take the time our son, Ilya, age 22 months, was on a walk with my husband Darrin. Ilya was jabbering away and Darrin was pretending to understand what he was saying. Then Ilya started repeating himself excitedly, “Appy. Appy. Appy.” And the guessing games began. First, my husband went down the list of needs. Was he hungry? “Do you want an ‘apple’?” Negative. Ilya continued to repeat himself excitedly, while Darrin stared at him in confusion. Then Darrin looked at his hands.
Ilya had his thumb, pointer finger, and pinkie extended and soaring through the sky… like an airplane. Darrin exclaimed, “Oh, AIRPLANE!” It was exciting for both of them! Ilya loved being understood and Darrin loved being “in” on what was going on in his son’s mind. They communicated! Without that visual cue, who knows if Darrin would have ever been able to join in on Ilya’s excitement about the airplane flying above them.
What’s even more exciting is when children get so accustomed to signing that they start making up their own charade-like signs to clear up any confusion about what they are trying to say. That is truly expressive.
Well, using baby sign language may sound interesting, not to mention fun, but where do you start?
First, you can start signing to your baby when he or she is about six months old, but don’t be surprised if all you get at first is cooing and spitting up at you! For a while, you may wonder if they even notice you are signing to them. Then one day they’ll sign back to you without warning. Ilya gave us that little shock when he was about ten months old to let us know that he did, in fact, want “more” bananas.
Secondly, even though we all want our children to be the best and brightest kids known to man, don’t bombard them with a bunch of signs all at once. Start out slowly, with simple, useful signs. The one we started with was “more.” It’s simple and universal. You can use it in many different contexts, but it works especially well at mealtime. Many times it can be confusing to figure out whether your baby is done sitting in the high chair or wants more of something. Once your baby catches onto signing “more,” mealtime hysteria drops noticeably.
Does this mean you should go buy one of those expensive sign language video sets? Not really. Just go to your local library and check out a book of simple signs. Start with signs you think your children will find useful and fun. Shortly after teaching our son the sign for “more,” we also taught him its opposite, “all done.” Once a solid foundation of a few signs is established, you’ll be surprised at how quickly your children pick up new signs from you and any baby sign language videos that you may find at the local library.
In the end, though, the greatest benefit you’ll get from the experience is spending quality time connecting and communicating with your baby, something you’ll reap the benefits of for years to come.
Things to remember when teaching your child to sign:
~Always verbalize the word when showing the sign.
~Repeat, repeat and repeat!
~You can gently put your hands over your child’s to help him or her sign the word.
~ Praise your children when they sign and don’t correct their sign.
~ Grandparents love to sign too!
~Signing comes in very handy when you’re in a quiet place like church to ask children to “sit” or if they need the “bathroom” when potty training.
~ Have fun!
Darrin and Sara Moir live in Marquette with their two beautiful sons, Ilya and Mikka. They began teaching sign to their sons around six months of age. Both boys love to sign and have been since they were ten to twelve months old.
Reprinted from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Spring 2010. Copyright Darrin & Sara Moir, 2010.