Excerpt from Chapter 1
Over the past few years, baby sign language has been featured everywhere from the news to big-screen motion pictures. All these sound bites and clips probably intrigued you, but they did not give you a great idea of what baby sign language is. You may be wondering whether there is a "language" called baby sign language or whether it is based on another language. Or, you may be worried that if you sign with your child, he might not talk. Some people even worry that if they sign with their baby, their child will go deaf.
This chapter takes a look at what baby sign language is, its origin, why it works, and what myths might be out there about it. It explains what it can do for you and for your baby, as well as what it won't do. In short, it gives you the information that you need to decide whether signing with your baby is right for you. Let's get started.
What Is Baby Sign Language?
Before we discuss what baby sign language is, let's clarify what the terms lan¬guage and speech mean. We all use language to understand what is said to us (receptive language) and to express ourselves (expressive language). Language is how we communicate with others using words, signs, or writing. Language includes the types of words we use-nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, how many words we use, how we put the words together to form thoughts, and so on. Speech is how we pronounce words and show the language we have acquired. Interestingly, we have some language before we have speech, meaning that before we can speak, we can communicate with others by using gestures, grunts, and visual cues. This is the predicament that babies are in- they have things (language) to express, but very few ways to express them.
Baby sign language is a way to communicate with your baby before he can speak. It uses your baby's natural abilities and tendencies to increase the clarity of your daily interactions. Babies naturally try to communicate their wants and needs. As a part of their attempt to communicate, they naturally use their hands. Who hasn't seen a baby raise his arms to show that he wants to be picked up? What mom hasn't had her child emphatically gesture to grab something that he wants but which is out of reach?
Baby sign language taps into these natural tendencies by empowering your baby to communicate needs, wants, and even complex thoughts with his hands. It bridges the gap between the time when your baby can't com¬municate with words and the time when he can be clearly understood. Think about how empowering this can be for your baby. Instead of cry¬ing and hoping you can guess that he needs his diaper changed or wants to have some applesauce, he can tell you. As a parent, in many cases, you will no longer have to guess what your baby wants. He can tell you. You don't have to be standing in the grocery store line with a screaming baby wonder¬ing whether he is hungry or tired or bored. He can let you know.
If you choose, baby sign language can be the beginning of a wonderful experi¬ence learning a new language-American Sign Language. Or if you only want to use it as a bridge during the time when your baby cannot communicate with words, it works wonders. In either case, baby sign language is fun and easy for both parents and children to learn and do. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of being a parent because it has the power to stop tantrums and start conversations.
In addition to enhancing communica¬tion, baby sign language may have addi¬tional benefits for you and your child. We will discuss these later in this chapter. However, the best benefit is a closer bond with your child.
Tapping into Your Baby's Natural Abilities Using Simple Signs
In order for anything to work for parents and babies, it needs to be simple and natural. You're in luck. Signing is something that comes naturally to babies. They point at things they want, wave with their hands to say "bye," and clap to show excitement. These are all signs-it is that simple. You are only taking advantage of their in-born tendencies by teaching them simple signs for things they want. It takes a little patience and dedication on mom and dad's part, but any baby can do it. And it fits right into your daily rou¬tine. You don't "make time for sign." You just add signs to the conversations and communications you already have with your baby.
A lot of parents worry that using baby sign language means that they will have to spend a lot of time learning another language. That's not true. The signs you will use are borrowed from American Sign Language (ASL), a beautiful and rich language. However, you will not generally be using the syntax, structure, or other linguistic qualities of ASL. You are borrowing only a few signs from a vast language. After signing with your baby, you may decide to go on and learn more about ASL and Deaf culture. I recommend it. But if you just want to understand what your baby's needs are, that is a wonderful reason to sign with your baby.
Remember, this is not rocket science. It just takes a few simple steps and some tips to make it work. I have broken the process down into age-specific guide¬lines so that you can know what works best at what age.
Benefits of Signing with Your Hearing Baby
A few years ago, I stood before a room of successful businessmen to discuss my Sign Babies ASL Flash Cards and my business needs. These were men who had started banks, software companies, and other businesses and who had seen fads come and go. The first question I was asked was, "How many deaf babies are born in our town?" The men thought that my product was intended for deaf babies. I smiled and said that I did not know but that it did not matter. Eyebrows went up around the table. Then I explained that Sign Babies was focused on teaching hearing parents of hearing babies how to sign with their children to facilitate communication before babies can speak. I went on to explain the bene¬fits of signing with hearing babies. By the time I left, every man at the table was sold on the concept. Here is what I told them.
Hearing babies who sign with their parents and other caregivers have a unique opportunity to learn to communi¬cate their needs and wants and thoughts long before the average hearing child can. Besides the ability to communicate, there are these added benefits.
Babies who sign
- Speak at the normal time or sooner than their counterparts who do not sign.
- Have larger vocabularies when they do begin to speak.
- Have more interest in reading.
- Have better skills in spelling and reading.
- Score higher than their nonsigning counterparts on verbal and lan¬guage tests and have higher IQ scores even as old as age eight (see Table 1).
- Have a better sense of self-confidence because they can get their needs met.
- Have parents who are less frustrated, because they spend less time in the guessing game trying to figure out what their baby needs.
- Have a start on a second language, which develops more of the brain earlier and promotes lifelong language learning abilities.
- Develop both sides of their brains at a higher rate (recent brain scans show that babies who sign have increased activity on both sides, which may occur because signing is visual, motor, and linguistic in nature).
- Those who live in bilingual households have an easier time transition¬ing between the languages when the same signs are used with both lan¬guages.
- Have a close bond with their parents because they can spend more time communicating with each other.