Look Who's Talking With Their Hands

By signing, even infants can tell you what's on their mind

Jennifer Neale's daughter started using words at the age of seven months. Elena, now 21 months old, isn't unusually gifted with language; rather, she communicates using her hands. Neale, a University of California doctoral candidate in ecology, and her husband Ben Sacks, began using simple gestures with Elena when she was five months old, after hearing about the benefits of sign language for babies. Soon, Elena was able to sign such requests as more, eat, sleep, and change. "It was easy and fun," says Neale, adding that her daughter probably knew 200 signs by the time she was a year old. "We never had a period where we couldn't figure out what she wanted." When Elena was speaking a few months later, her vocabulary was extensive--because, Neale believes, of her experience with signs.

A growing body of research supports Neale's faith in the power of sign language for babies. Once considered useful only for the deaf or hard-of-hearing, sign language is becoming a powerful tool to promote early communication for everyone. The reason: Professionals say children can communicate with hand signs much sooner than they can master verbal skills. "It's a question of how children mature," says Marilyn Daniels, an associate professor of speech communication at Pennsylvania State University and author of a forthcoming book called Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy.

Daniels is one of numerous researchers who encourage families to learn and use basic signs as early as possible. Most suggest using American Sign Language (ASL) because it's easy to learn, standardized, and an official language used by the deaf community. But others note that even homemade signs can encourage communication at least six months before most children start to form basic words. Signing not only increases the parents' bond and interaction with their babies, it helps reduce a major source of tantrums and stress for infants. It also creates a more physically expressive environment.

I.Q. BOOST? What's more, most signs are easy for people to pick up and use. Those who don't want to delve into ASL dictionaries and courses can invest in books and tapes designed specifically for use with hearing babies. Joseph Garcia, an early childhood education researcher in Bellingham, Wash., has produced paperbacks, video kits, and reference guides as part of a series called Sign with Your Baby. University of California professors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn put out Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, based on the results of their studies with hearing families. Unlike Garcia, who is a firm proponent of ASL, Acredolo and Goodwyn suggest making up signs to avoid frustration for parents. "Babies only need the signs for a short period of time," says Acredolo, who argues that "there's nothing to be gained from having parents run home to search for the exact sign every time they want to teach something new."

Still, few dispute that any form of nonverbal communication goes a long way toward helping babies develop. When Acredolo and Goodwyn revisited the subjects of their 1993 study of 140 families, they found that children who signed as babies had a mean I.Q. of 114, compared to the nonsigning control group's mean I.Q. of 102. Even if signing doesn't produce smarter children, anecdotal evidence suggests that it may help them speak earlier than their nonsigning counterparts, because signing seems to help them grasp some basics of language structure. Jenny Culver, an Internet consultant in Brookfield, Wis., notes that her pediatrician initially feared that using signs with Culver's daughter Madeline might delay the child's speech. Instead, Madeline's first words came at a relatively early 14 months as a sentence: "What's that?" Culver also feels that sign language may have helped Madeline, who was adopted from Russia when she was 10 months old, adapt to English.

A major benefit of signing is that parents can figure out what a child wants. Burton White, an education psychologist in Waban, Mass., and author of The First Three Years of Life, notes that the second year of life is a time when most children--and especially boys--have very little spoken language and can cause their parents a lot of grief. "If a child has some way of telling you what's bothering him, that reduces frustration for everyone," says White. That's certainly true for Monica Beyer of St. Joseph, Mo., who didn't turn to sign language until she had her second son, Corbin, who's now 16 months old. He was able to communicate his wants much earlier than his older brother. "I wish I had known about teaching infants sign language when my older son was small," says Beyer, noting that her 4-year-old, Dagan, now signs to his brother.

Still, deciding to take the time to sign takes energy and a strong commitment. Those who make up their own signs have to remember and use the same gestures. Those who use standard signs need to look up and learn key words. Then they must repeat the signs again and again, weeks or even months before the child is likely to sign back. Mardi Solomon, a freelance researcher in Bellingham, started with three signs: more, eat, and nurse. "We were consistent and very motivated," says Solomon, who started when her daughter, Eva, was 7 months and found her signing back about six weeks later. Some mothers, however, feel it's a solo effort: They complain that husbands, relatives, and other caregivers fail to learn or reinforce the signs.

Those who do make the effort clearly feel they're giving their children a head start. That's especially true for people who take the time to learn ASL, which has the added benefit of being a recognized language in its own right. Researchers have long recognized that it's far easier to acquire second and third languages at a young age. And learning two languages, they've demonstrated, gives children intellectual skills that extend into other areas.

Children who keep up ASL are effectively bilingual--and can converse with the 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people living in the U.S., a community that has traditionally been marginalized. "Just creating more awareness for the deaf community is good," says Reeba Lynn, a literacy outreach manager in San Mateo, Calif., whose 17-year-old daughter is deaf. Lynn first noticed the general benefits of baby signing when her 9-month-old son signed "cold" after watching signs to his older sister. "I had no clue my son was picking it up," says Lynn, whose three children are now fluent in ASL.

So when is the best time to start teaching signs? While parents can do it from birth--and some research has found babies signing as young as four months--researchers say it's fine to wait. "If you start showing signs at seven months, many kids would be signing back at eight months," says Garcia, who began researching the subject in 1986. By nine months, he says, some babies can master 75 signs. Despite his years of training, Garcia does not encourage teaching infants the entire body of ASL. "I advocate adding signs for the most dominant things in a child's life," he says. "The goal is to take away from stress, not add to it."

In the end, using signs can dramatically ease communication with babies. It won't stop them from getting into jams, whacking other children, or otherwise being tough toddlers. But it may help parents open a window into children's thoughts long before the infants start to speak. Then, along with waving bye-bye and making funny faces, they can actually let parents know how they feel and what they want.

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