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Look Who's Talking in Sign Language

Jump-Start on Speech

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Sophia Jordan began uttering her first words when she was 9 months old, her mother says. At 11 months, she was able to say lawnmower and broccoli. By age 1, her vocabulary consisted of 15 to 20 words.

"We know already the more language a baby hears, the faster it learns to talk," Acredolo says. "The baby signs are pulling language at earlier stages from the parents, and the baby is choosing the topic."

Her study, which included 103 children, also found that six years after children had learned signs, they continued to outperform their peers. Their mean IQ was 12 points higher than those who were not raised with gesturing, according to her research, conducted with co-author Susan Goodwyn, PhD.

"The reason to do baby signs is not to raise your baby's IQ. It is not to make them talk earlier. We feel the main goal is to smooth out the interaction between parent and child, and make that time of life much more pleasant than it would normally be," Acredolo tells WebMD. "Baby signs allow the baby to express what its needs are, what it's thinking about, and what it wants to share with you. It just makes life a heck of a lot easier."

Monica Beyer says sign language quieted the noise level in her house. She began teaching her son, Corbin, to sign when he was 11 months old. Soon, the movement of his hands replaced the screams he used to express his wants. Now, at almost 2, Corbin knows about 60 signs, stringing two or three together as though speaking in sentences.

"Just knowing that he can communicate what he wanted really made our lives a lot happier," says Beyer, who now teaches signing to parents in St. Joseph, Mo. "It is just amazing to see their little hands going, and the delight you see on their faces when you understand what they are saying."

Like Jordan, Beyer began teaching her son with the sign for "milk" -- a squeeze of the hand as though you were milking a cow. They both used American Sign Language gestures - a style recommended by Joseph Garcia, a researcher and author of Sign With Your Baby. Garcia, who began studying baby signs in 1987 as part of his master's program at Alaska Pacific University, says he prefers using a standardized language to making up signs in order to maintain consistency. Once baby signing becomes more widespread, he envisions babies being able to communicate with a variety of caregivers, from teachers to sitters.

"Uncle Bob can come from New Jersey and have the same signs," says Garcia, who has developed a signing kit for parents to use with their children.

However, Acredolo recommends making up signs so that parents don't have to learn another language. It is easier to invent your own gestures and sign what comes naturally, she says, than to run home to look up "caterpillar" in a book after your child spots one on the playground.

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