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Look Who's Talking in Sign Language

Jump-Start on Speech

WebMD Feature

March 12, 2001 -- Jessica Jordan's daughter, Sophia, isn't deaf, but she started learning sign language when she was 5 months old.

She started with simple words like "milk" and "more," but within months could grasp more complex ideas. During a visit to the New England Aquarium in Boston when she was 10 months old, Sophia spotted some swimming penguins and signed "fish." Her mother corrected her, using sign language for "bird." Sophia furrowed her brow and again signed "fish." This time, her mother signed "bird" and "swimming." Sophia understood, and quickly responded with the sign for bird.

Two months later, Sophia picked up a feather lying on the ground and signed "bird hair." Her mother was amazed.

"I was just so fascinated that I was communicating with her. It enhanced our bond," says Jordan, a special education teacher from Nashua, N.H. "At 10 months old, to be discussing whether a penguin is a fish or a bird is just amazing. That kind of stuff just floored me."

Sign language has been used for years to communicate with deaf children, but the practice is becoming popular in playgroups nationwide among babies who can hear. Just as they learn the motions to the Itsy Bitsy Spider, pre-verbal babies are capable of using their hands to speak. With simple gestures like tapping their lips for "food" or scratching their armpits for "monkey," children as young as 8 months old are signing.

"Most kids do this. It's just that people haven't paid attention, and parents are so focused on words that they don't see this as something to be encouraged," says Linda Acredolo, PhD, author of Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. "We all teach our babies 'bye-bye,' and that is a sign."

Some parents are dissuaded by what Acredolo refers to as the "mother-in-law myth" -- warnings from family members and friends that teaching babies sign language will delay their speech. Her research suggests that the exact opposite is true. Just as crawling encourages children to walk, signing, she says, nudges them to take the next step.

"A baby enjoys the whole experience of communicating so much. It is so rewarding that they search for more and better ways to communicate, and verbal language is the obvious candidate," says Acredolo, professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis. "It just excites them about the entire enterprise."

Acredolo has been studying baby signs since 1982, when her daughter began sniffing to mean "flower." She set out to determine if she had remarkable offspring, or if other children were doing the same. What she found was that children 10 to 20 months old can learn gestures and use them in meaningful ways, like to tell their parents their food is too hot or that the dolls in their room scare them. The more signs the children learned, the larger their vocabularies by age 2, according to her study published last year in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior and funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development.

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