Haskins Laboratories

reprinted from The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
April 25, 2006 

Baby sign language a growing movement
By Wendy Solomon
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Apr. 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Pointing to a colorful flower, Tricia Campbell lifts her infant's soft, doughy hand, presses his fingers together and rapidly moves them from one side of his nose to the other as she sniffs loudly.

"Flower!" she exclaims.

Campbell repeats the gesture, sniffs and again says, "Flower!"

Gregory smiles, drools and burbles happily. He seems more interested in the bag of Animal Crackers at his feet.

It could be a year before Gregory, a normal, healthy 4-month-old, can speak, but until then, his mother hopes to get a jump-start on communicating with her baby through sign language, the language of the deaf.

Neither Tricia Campbell nor her son is deaf.

Like others around the world, Campbell is part of a growing movement of parents and day care centers teaching hearing babies simple gestures, or signs, to communicate before they can talk. The baby sign language trend has been gaining broader exposure in recent years. The movie, "Meet the Fockers," where Robert De Niro's character teaches his young grandson to sign, helped propel it into the mainstream. And it got a boost when actress and new mom Debra Messing enthused about teaching sign language to her 10-month-old son.

Babies typically begin to talk between 12 and 15 months, but some researchers say babies can grasp sign language and communicate with it before they learn how to speak.

"We know they are learning language faster than they are able to show you with their speech production because that system takes a long time to develop," says Gerald McRoberts, director of developmental research at the Haskins Laboratories, a private, non-profit research institute on speech and language.

"They are understanding words before they are able to say them. Somewhere around 16 to 18 months, they might say 50 words but understand 200, so they're way ahead. They understand short sentences well," McRoberts says.

Studies have shown deaf children learn to use sign language earlier than hearing children learn to speak meaningfully.

As to whether hearing babies can communicate earlier with sign language, McRoberts says, "I think that's still to be determined. It may. It may not. I'm very interested in that very question, and we're just starting a few studies here."

Ling Chou, the instructor of the non-credit Baby Signs workshop at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa., and Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, Pa., has no reservations about teaching sign language to hearing babies. Chou says it kick-started her son James' ability to communicate his needs and observations before he was physically able to talk.

"He signed 'milk' to me when I was nursing him at 11 months. It was amazing. So he was actually expressing himself," Chou says.

When he was 15 months old, James signed that his bath water was too hot, even though he could not say it.

"I knew so many boys between 12 and 18 months who couldn't express themselves and ended up getting frustrated. We skipped a lot of that. I feel it's been wonderful for me. He could really express himself," Chou says.

She believes it can help deepen the bonds between parent and baby. And besides easing frustration, Chou says baby sign language is fun and easy to learn.

Baby Signs, which Chou teaches, is one of the leading sign language systems created 20 years ago by psychology professors Linda Acredolo and Susan W. Goodwyn. The pair, who run the Baby Signs Institute, have done extensive research and wrote the bestselling book, "Baby Signs: How To Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk."

While the baby sign language trend has proliferated around the world, some parents wonder whether sign language delays speech.

"What we found was exactly the opposite," says Acredolo, who conducted a study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that asked that question.

"Signing actually facilitated learning to talk. It motivates babies" to talk, Acredolo says. It's analogous to the relationship between crawling and walking - one facilitates the other. When babies have sign language as a tool, "they look for better and better ways to communicate, and (spoken) words are the natural step," she notes.

The NIH study also showed other advantages, among them: 8-year-olds who had been signing since age 2 had higher IQs than a similar group who had not been exposed to it.

When Lilyan and Keith Frisch had a son with Down Syndrome, they debated whether to teach him sign language, fearing it would delay his speech, already a concern for a child who is developmentally slow.

"When Simon was born, we kind of went back and forth. Should we teach him sign language or shouldn't we? We finally decided to teach him sign when he was 14 months old," Lilyan Frisch says.

It's a decision they don't regret.

"The sign language is the best thing. Simon does great. He always gets his point across. He gets his needs met and he's happy," Frisch says. "I think it's totally benefited him," she adds.

Now 27 months old, Simon knows at least 50 signs and can string three signs together to form a sentence. He says about 25 words. His first sign was made when he was 17 months old: "more."

"It was probably for more food," Frisch says with a laugh.

Her oldest child, Zoe, 4, loves sign language and is learning it with Simon at St. Joseph the Worker School in Orefield, Pa. And the couple plan to teach it to their newborn, Ava.

Acredolo, of the Baby Signs Institute, says the most important benefits are social and emotional.

"It makes daily life easier for the baby and for the family," Acredolo says.

"Babies can let parents know more specifically what it is they need or want. It makes the relationship very positive between parent and child and that is so important for emotional development," she says.

Additionally, Acredolo says, parents get a look into a "fascinating window into their baby's mind. They are dumbfounded with how attentive babies are and how much they're thinking about. They don't look that smart and yet they are really very aware of what's going on around them."

McRoberts, of Haskins Laboratories, says baby sign language is a fad among well-meaning parents that may well have some advantages, unlike the short-lived trend 20 years ago when parents tried talking to their babies in the womb.

With sign language "a baby can say they want something to eat, to drink, maybe indicate their diaper needs to be changed. I'm not sure how much farther you get," McRoberts says. "And aren't those things you want them to be able to communicate with spoken language? So maybe you get a couple months of reduced frustration," he says.

And because many of the baby sign language methods are adaptations of American Sign Language and incorporate made-up signs, McRoberts questions whether babies are learning a true language with a formal set of rules.

"So it's not like these children are bilingual. They are not learning a language, they are learning a sign system," McRoberts says, adding, "My dog used to let me know when he was hungry and wanted out. All that was very helpful, but it wasn't language."


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