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I love babies and I love talking and having conversations. Trouble is, babies can’t talk. They may be skilled at listening and taking in information, but they can’t tell a story, share their feelings, desires, thoughts or ask questions with words. Except that they actually can.

Many babies learn how to say “hi” and “bye” before they can sequence the complex motor movements that are required for speech. Adults teach them how to wave one hand. Babies can express the word “no” before they can talk, too. Instead of saying it with their mouths and vocal mechanism, they learn to shake their heads, often vigorously and with great emphasis.

Thirty years ago, researchers at the University of California at Davis, my beloved alma mater, began looking at symbolic gestures (or signs) and what happens when they are taught to babies. The results were and continue to be exciting. Exposing children who can hear to sign language vocabulary decreases temper tantrums, increases connection with caregivers, heightens vocabulary development, and has a long lasting impact on school success.

Ever since I interned in the toddler classroom at UC Davis, I have been hooked on the power of signing with babies. As a speech therapist, I teach gestures to help children who have delays and disorders communicate, and I teach parents of very young children how to teach signs before their children are even expected to talk. I speak many dialects of baby sign language, because each family has their own unique gestures for vocabulary.

Parents and adults will ask, “Does signing contribute to a delay in a child starting to talk?” Research and my own anecdotal experience have proved that signing is actually a bridge to verbal communication and may even speed up the connections that are needed for babies to learn to talk. The thing is, sign language words and verbal words are symbols. Our brains like symbols and the earlier we understand the symbolic nature of our world, the more quickly we’ll seek out other symbols and representations. Signing helps babies break the code and understand that things they do have meaning and power.

By using a sign, babies can communicate to the important people in their lives about what they like, don’t like, and what they are thinking about. And then when they become toddlers and they have their hands full of things all of the time, they start to sign less and talk more. However, many baby signers continue to sign in emotional situations or in loud environments even after they’ve started talking.

Signing can also be an excellent way to support the communication development of children learning more than one language. If all the caregivers in a child’s life know the signs the child is using, the sign can stay constant, even if the language model changes. This further reinforces the symbolic connections that this little language learner is gaining. Also, it reduces the number of misunderstandings from caregiver to caregiver when the languages of exposure are not shared between them. The sign for “ball” stays the same even if one parent says, “ball,” the other says, “pelota” and a third caregiver says “boule.”

So sign on and know that you are contributing to your child’s language development!

Piera M. Willner, MS, CCC-SLP is a licensed and certified speech-language pathologist and parent educator, living and working in Seward Park. www.speechtherapyinseattle.com

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