Look Who's Talking in Sign Language

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Jump-Start on Speech

By Kimberly Sanchez
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

March 12, 2001 -- Jessica Jordan's daughter, Sophia, isn't deaf, but she started learning sign language when she was 5 months old.

She started with simple words like "milk" and "more," but within months could grasp more complex ideas. During a visit to the New England Aquarium in Boston when she was 10 months old, Sophia spotted some swimming penguins and signed "fish." Her mother corrected her, using sign language for "bird." Sophia furrowed her brow and again signed "fish." This time, her mother signed "bird" and "swimming." Sophia understood, and quickly responded with the sign for bird.

Two months later, Sophia picked up a feather lying on the ground and signed "bird hair." Her mother was amazed.

"I was just so fascinated that I was communicating with her. It enhanced our bond," says Jordan, a special education teacher from Nashua, N.H. "At 10 months old, to be discussing whether a penguin is a fish or a bird is just amazing. That kind of stuff just floored me."

Sign language has been used for years to communicate with deaf children, but the practice is becoming popular in playgroups nationwide among babies who can hear. Just as they learn the motions to the Itsy Bitsy Spider, pre-verbal babies are capable of using their hands to speak. With simple gestures like tapping their lips for "food" or scratching their armpits for "monkey," children as young as 8 months old are signing.

"Most kids do this. It's just that people haven't paid attention, and parents are so focused on words that they don't see this as something to be encouraged," says Linda Acredolo, PhD, author of Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. "We all teach our babies 'bye-bye,' and that is a sign."

Some parents are dissuaded by what Acredolo refers to as the "mother-in-law myth" -- warnings from family members and friends that teaching babies sign language will delay their speech. Her research suggests that the exact opposite is true. Just as crawling encourages children to walk, signing, she says, nudges them to take the next step.

"A baby enjoys the whole experience of communicating so much. It is so rewarding that they search for more and better ways to communicate, and verbal language is the obvious candidate," says Acredolo, professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis. "It just excites them about the entire enterprise."

Acredolo has been studying baby signs since 1982, when her daughter began sniffing to mean "flower." She set out to determine if she had remarkable offspring, or if other children were doing the same. What she found was that children 10 to 20 months old can learn gestures and use them in meaningful ways, like to tell their parents their food is too hot or that the dolls in their room scare them. The more signs the children learned, the larger their vocabularies by age 2, according to her study published last year in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior and funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development.

Sophia Jordan began uttering her first words when she was 9 months old, her mother says. At 11 months, she was able to say lawnmower and broccoli. By age 1, her vocabulary consisted of 15 to 20 words.

"We know already the more language a baby hears, the faster it learns to talk," Acredolo says. "The baby signs are pulling language at earlier stages from the parents, and the baby is choosing the topic."

Her study, which included 103 children, also found that six years after children had learned signs, they continued to outperform their peers. Their mean IQ was 12 points higher than those who were not raised with gesturing, according to her research, conducted with co-author Susan Goodwyn, PhD.

"The reason to do baby signs is not to raise your baby's IQ. It is not to make them talk earlier. We feel the main goal is to smooth out the interaction between parent and child, and make that time of life much more pleasant than it would normally be," Acredolo tells WebMD. "Baby signs allow the baby to express what its needs are, what it's thinking about, and what it wants to share with you. It just makes life a heck of a lot easier."

Monica Beyer says sign language quieted the noise level in her house. She began teaching her son, Corbin, to sign when he was 11 months old. Soon, the movement of his hands replaced the screams he used to express his wants. Now, at almost 2, Corbin knows about 60 signs, stringing two or three together as though speaking in sentences.

"Just knowing that he can communicate what he wanted really made our lives a lot happier," says Beyer, who now teaches signing to parents in St. Joseph, Mo. "It is just amazing to see their little hands going, and the delight you see on their faces when you understand what they are saying."

Like Jordan, Beyer began teaching her son with the sign for "milk" -- a squeeze of the hand as though you were milking a cow. They both used American Sign Language gestures - a style recommended by Joseph Garcia, a researcher and author of Sign With Your Baby. Garcia, who began studying baby signs in 1987 as part of his master's program at Alaska Pacific University, says he prefers using a standardized language to making up signs in order to maintain consistency. Once baby signing becomes more widespread, he envisions babies being able to communicate with a variety of caregivers, from teachers to sitters.

"Uncle Bob can come from New Jersey and have the same signs," says Garcia, who has developed a signing kit for parents to use with their children.

However, Acredolo recommends making up signs so that parents don't have to learn another language. It is easier to invent your own gestures and sign what comes naturally, she says, than to run home to look up "caterpillar" in a book after your child spots one on the playground.

Zero To Three, a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers, says no matter what style parents adopt, they should continue to use their voices when they sign.

"Many babies gesture before they talk. They point. They reach. They do all kinds of things. This is just formalizing the system a little more," says Victoria Youcha, EDD, a child development specialist with the national organization. "I think it's fine, as long as it's enjoyable for both parent and child."

Parents should not push signing on their children, experts say. Infants do not learn through formal instruction. The best way to get started is for parents to incorporate signs into their everyday situations with their babies. If your baby points to a dog, tell him what it is and use a sign for it. If your daughter is eating dinner, ask verbally if she would like more milk and make the sign.

"It is the simplest thing in the world," Acredolo says. "The prototype is how you teach your baby 'bye bye.' You say the word. You emphasize it and you do this hand-waving thing. You do it frequently enough and your baby makes the connection."

Garcia offers these suggestions for signing with babies:

  • Never ask a child to do sign language involving unfamiliar things.  
  • Don't ask your child to show off her/his signing abilities to others.  
  • Don't compare your child to other children.  
  • Don't show disappointment if your child chooses not to sign in a particular situation.  
  • Don't make signing with your baby a lesson, but use signs in your daily life as an augmentation to your speech.  Don't teach, just sign.  Let your baby discover.
  • Reward your child's attempts to communicate so that he/she receives love and acceptance when he/she makes those first attempts to connect with you.  
  • Try not to overanticipate and overrespond to your child's needs.  Otherwise, your infant may seldom have need-driven opportunities to communicate.  Allow a few seconds or moments for your child to search for and discover her/his internal resources.

Kimberly Sanchez is a freelance writer in St. Louis and a frequent contributor to WebMD. She also has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Dallas Morning News.


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