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Saturday, January 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Families

Sign of the times: Teaching babies sign language lets them communicate even before they can talk

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Lauren Cover bought a sign-language dictionary and carried it in her stroller when her son Jeremy, now 3-1/2, was a toddler.

"He'd see something on our walk and look at me, clearly asking, 'How do you sign this?' " said Cover, a Redmond resident. "Whatever he wanted to know, I could look it up and tell him how to sign it."

Jeremy, who now helps his 1-year-old sister, Amanda, learn signs such as "milk," "more" and "dog," knew 75 signs by age 18 months.

"Signing is the single best thing we've done as parents," said Cover, who started when Jeremy was 6 months old. "We didn't have to guess what he wanted, and he could tell us what he was thinking about. It was like a little window into his brain."

Using simple sign language with hearing babies is growing more popular with parents and child-care workers, who say the hand gestures reduce frustration for all parties.

Some experts also praise American Sign Language for helping older children learn to read as well as pick up a second language.

Parents can find several local baby-signing classes and numerous children's sign-language books and videos.

Bellingham educator Joseph Garcia helped kick off the movement with his 1994 book, "Toddler Talk," now republished by Seattle's Northlight Communications as "Sign with Your Baby."

A package of the book and a training video — featuring many parents from the Seattle area — made Amazon.com's list of its 20 best-selling family and parenting books of 2001.

While some how-to-sign books, notably "Baby Signs," use made-up gestures, Garcia relies on American Sign Language, which he calls a "gift" from the deaf. When he noticed a deaf friend's baby started signing earlier than most babies talk, he decided to study parents signing with hearing infants as a graduate research project.

After 15 years of advocating signing as a linguistic "bridge" for preverbal babies, Garcia says he's finally past the stage where people greet him with "Are you crazy?"

"Now when I speak, people are eager to find out not if and whether babies can sign, but how to do it," he said.

All parents have seen how young children naturally use physical gestures, such as pointing, to communicate. They also know children grasp considerably more than they can relay back.

Academics still argue over whether babies' gestures truly represent language. But some psychologists believe tots' signing proves that physical, not cognitive, limitations keep little ones from talking.

"It completely blows (Jean) Piaget's theory out of the water that says that babies can't mentally represent symbols until they are almost 2 and therefore can't learn to talk until then," says Stephanie Stein, a Central Washington University professor of developmental psychology, in an online review of Garcia's book.

"It's the fine motor skills that are lacking in young infants, not the conceptual ability to understand and use language."

Research by two California professors found babies who sign tend to speak sooner than their peers, and by age 2 have an average of 50 words more in their vocabulary.

Most toddlers drop signing as they learn to speak more proficiently, perhaps keeping a few in-family signs such as "I love you."

How much babies sign depends on their personalities as well as how consistently parents and caregivers use gestures. Advocates recommend starting with babies age 6 to 8 months, though older children can benefit, too.

Some tots pick up a few signs, while others link words together (for example, "pain," "mouth" and "medicine" to say they want teething relief). Some even create their own signs.

Sixteen-month-old Sarah Kushner, for one, decided the ASL sign for "swing," which she also uses for "playground," wasn't dramatic enough for such a fun thing. So she made up her own energetic sign, paddling her hands over her head, said mom Lise Kreps of Fremont.

Sarah also applies the same ASL sign in different contexts, such as using "baby" for infants and her dolls. The sign for "head" works for "hat," and "eat" applies to food or drink.

Though Sarah is talking more, signing helps clarify her sometimes hard-to-understand speech, Kreps said. With various intonations, "ba" can mean "bath," "ball," or "banana," but a sign clears up Sarah's intent.

"She's very expressive," Kreps said. "She likes being able to tell us things. It made her much happier."

No superbabies

Happier babies is the goal of signing, says Stein, who dismisses critics who fault signing as another way for overachieving parents to create "superbabies."

"Signing is a tool to make children's lives easier and make their relationship with parents less stressful," she said. "It's not about seeing how much you can cram in their brains."

Parents shouldn't "teach" babies the signs, but simply use them every time they say the word so the children figure out what they mean, Garcia said.

The California professors found children who signed as infants had higher IQs at age 8. Garcia attributes the bump not to signing per se but to earlier communication that allows richer, deeper engagement between parent and child.

Providing babies with tools to help grown-ups understand what they want also boosts their self-confidence. Parents don't have to be fluent in sign language; most of the basic signs are iconic, meaning they look like the things they represent. For example, "eat" is touching one's fingers to the lips.

When Jeremy, then 14 months, went to the beach for the first time, he didn't yell when he disliked the feel of the sand under his bare feet. Instead, Cover has a video of Jeremy frantically signing "finished."

Another day he made a bunch of signs that didn't make sense until Cover realized he was sharing the events of a "Sesame Street" episode.

More recently, he informed his mom that his sister was making the sign for "eat," explaining why she was crying during a car ride.

Less biting

"When kids don't talk, you're not sure what they want if they're crying," said Tamoro Johnson, a family child-care provider in Auburn who signs with her kids. "You can ask if they're hungry and they can sign "eat" if they are, instead of you trying to feed them when that's not the problem."

Many preschools use sign language during songs and story times as a fun way to introduce a second language. (Washington recognizes American Sign Language as a "foreign" language with high school and college classes counting toward language credits).

Marilyn Daniels, a professor of speech communication at Penn State University, found sign language adds a kinesthetic element to reading and spelling that can help preschool and kindergarten children learn.

Sign language is also used successfully with all ages of students with special needs, such as autism, cerebral palsy or learning disabilities.

Making a sign requires using the right side of the brain, while its meaning is stored in the languages side of the left brain, explained Daniels, author of "Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy." "The information has to go from intake on the right side to storage on the left. In the process, they're building synapses in their brains."

Kathleen Coyne, a fifth-grade teacher at Lockwood Elementary School in Bothell, doesn't formally teach ASL to students but often signs as she speaks or reads. She also finger-spells words when correcting her class' spelling lists.

Signing helps students feel more comfortable with others who are visibly different from them, she noted. "It's a great motivator for all kids," she said. "It's a real connector."

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