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Is It a Sign?
Babies with normal hearing are being taught sign language by parents hoping to produce a learning boost or tantrum relief.

By Sarah Glazer
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 13, 2001; Page HE12

At the KinderHaus day care center on Connecticut Avenue in the District's Chevy Chase neighborhood, toddlers are less likely than before to throw food on the floor to indicate they are done eating. Instead, staff members report, the children make the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for "finished."

In Falls Church, 1-year-old Gabriel Corradino is familiar with such drills. His mother, Tegan Corradino, has been signing to him since birth. Like the children at KinderHaus, Gabriel has no hearing problem—and neither do his parents. Instead, the signing is meant to let him express his wants and needs sooner than he could through speech.

Gabriel's signing helps prevent the tantrums that other mothers face, his mother insists. The other day, she says, Gabriel made the ASL sign for cheese in the grocery store, following it up with "please," a circular movement on his chest. His mom headed for the cheese counter. "If we didn't have a way for him to tell me that, he would have gotten frustrated, and I would have gotten frustrated because I wouldn't have known what he wanted," she says. "For me, signing really helps with this age." What's more, she contends—wading into more disputed territory—it gives her son a head start in language.

She has some company in the Washington area, where at least three day care facilities use signing and about 200 parents have taken baby sign classes.

This effort to jump-start infant communication was born on the West Coast, where three researchers began to study the use of signs for babies with normal hearing about 15 years ago. Joseph Garcia, an early childhood education researcher and educator in Bellingham, Wash., says he became interested when he noticed that deaf friends were communicating with their kids earlier than most hearing families were with theirs.

Today, close to 200,000 parents nationwide have purchased Garcia's learning kits and books, "Toddler Talk" (published in 1994, now out of print) and "Sign with Your Baby" (Northlight Communications, 1999). Garcia recommends teaching signs beginning about eight months after birth.

Another book, "Baby Signs" by University of California-Davis psychologists Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn (Contemporary Books), has sold more than 200,000 copies since it first advised parents in 1996 to invent homemade signs to use with their tots as soon as they show an interest—anywhere between seven and 10 months.

All three researchers advocate teaching signing as a way to learn babies' needs and wants—whether food, play or a diaper change—before they start to speak, typically during their second year. Advocates' Web sites are filled with parent testimonials, including the tale of a baby whose signing alerted her parents to a severe ear infection.

But ask what it all means, and the illusion of unanimity collapses. The problem is that babies themselves can't tell us what's inside their heads. And linguists, developmental psychologists and other experts are divided over the significance of this behavioral experiment—and babies' ability to convey real meaning through a set of fixed gestures.

The most enthusiastic adherents say success with the method shows that infants' brains mature earlier than previously thought and show greater capacity for memory, logic and symbolic thinking. "With baby signs we're finally getting more direct evidence of early cognitive abilities," says Acredolo. "We're revealing quite sophisticated processes—memory, analogy, the ability to make comparison between things and categorize things."

Language experts from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology say they are intrigued by baby signing's potential to unlock mysteries of the infant brain and to help us understand the origins of human speech. But they don't necessarily agree about what these infant gestures mean. Doubters, while they concede the practice is unlikely to do harm, question the level of comprehension behind babies' gesturing, noting that nearly all parents become adept at reading their baby's nonverbal signals anyway. To these critics, the signing movement looks suspiciously like just another fad for competitive parents who want to build a better baby.

"It seems like more advice for anxious parents on how to get more out of your baby earlier," says Steven Pinker, professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose 1994 book, "The Language Instinct" (Perennial Classics, 2000), discusses how children learn language.

Questions and More Questions

The more questions you ask, it seems, the trickier the matter becomes.

Try this one: Is baby signing really language? The answer depends on how you define language—an issue that has divided experts in a long-standing and bitter debate. Does language start with baby's first word, his first 10 words (or signs), his first two-word combination or not until his first full sentence? Again, it depends on whom you ask.

Or try this question: Who does signing really serve—the child or the parent?

Many parents say they use signs because of research findings that they give children a head start on speaking and boost their IQ. But those findings are subject to debate. Teaching signs requires constant repetition and dedication on the part of parents. Could the additional task of learning signs put new stress on babies? Or is it more likely to reduce stress by unlocking a channel of communication before babies can expressthemselves vocally?

At the heart of these and other questions is this basic one: How much do babies understand, and when do they understand it? Untangle this one, and you can help chart a new scientific frontier.

Sign Time

On a recent winter morning, a cluster of 2-year-olds sat in a circle around their KinderHaus teacher for a lesson on colors.

"Can you do 'red'?" asked teacher Adrienne Ford, stroking her lips with one hand in the ASL sign for red and pointing to a red color block on the wall with the other.

As in most nursery school circle times, child involvement varies. One little boy signs blue, orange and green as soon his teacher asks for these. Other children make the signs only after she demonstrates. Still others look ready to wander off to a toy corner they find more interesting.

Upstairs, 3- and 4-year-olds led by teacher Leddie Keil are singing "Kumbaya," signing the words as they sing. It's clear the children know what signs to make to the song, but can they use the words in other contexts? After watching the children complete the verse "Someone's singing, Lord, Kumbaya," a reporter asks, "How do you do 'singing'?" Caitlin, 3, instantly puts her hands up on either side of her mouth in the proper sign; so does Caroline. The others are more reticent—whether from shyness or confusion isn't clear.

Another recent scene: At Play & Learn at Dulles Corner, eight babies, ranging from 12 to 24 months, sit at a semicircular table, eating lunch. "Do you want more?" staff members ask the tots, putting both hands together in the "more" sign. Several respond with signs, but each child has a slightly different gesture.

Alison says the word while putting her two hands together in the accepted sign.Scott makes a sign resembling that for "bye-bye"; the staff says that's his sign for more.

What Is Language, Anyway?

The question of whether baby signing constitutes real language feeds into a larger debate over the genesis of communication. The fact that babies begin pointing and signaling before they speak has long led to speculation that human language may have originated in gesture. In this view, the development of each human infant reenacts the multimillion-year journey of our ancestors from hand gestures to speaking.

Language experts have divided over how language made the leap from the gestures used by apes to the intricacies of human speech. Some experts familiar with American Sign Language, the formalized system of signs and motions often taught to the deaf, argue that early humans could have developed grammar through gesture before they could speak. The capacity for language evolved gradually, they argue, and chimpanzees and humans probably share an ancestor that used visual communication as an early form of language.

Opponents, led by linguist Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adamantly disagree. The complexity of human grammar, they argue, dictates that humans must have undergone a radical change from other primates, endowing them with a uniquely human biological capacity for language.

David F. Armstrong agrees. A Gallaudet University anthropologist who puts forth an evolutionary theory of language in his 1999 book "Original Signs" (Gallaudet University Press), Armstrong says recent findings from studies of babies "certainly help to support the idea that some sort of gestural stage might have been the earliest form of human language."

A Research Minefield

Researchers investigating language acquisition by deaf and hearing children can't agree on what to count as a true sign or a true word, making comparisons difficult between babies' first use of sign language and first use of speech,notes Gallaudet University education professor Carol J. Erting. Does "Dada" count as baby's first real word if he uses it only in the presence of daddy? Or should the baby be able to use the sound to refer to Daddy when he is gone or even to indicate other people's daddies in order for it to be a "word?"

The data are intriguing but inconclusive. For instance, one long-standing claim says babies raised in deaf families start signing several months before hearing children normally start to speak. A study by University of Virginia psychologist John D. Bonvillian looked at 13 hearing children-12 hearing and one deaf-aised in Washington-area households in which at least one parent was deaf. Bonvillian reported babies signing their first word at around 8½ months of age, about three months before the typical child says his first recognizable word.

But a follow-up study qualified that finding. When Bonvillian applied strict linguistic criteria-asking, for example, when the baby could apply the sign "dog" to all dogs, not just the family dog-he found the first such sign appeared at about the same time as the typical milestone for the first spoken word used in multiple contexts, at around 13 months.

In the largest study conducted to date, Acredolo and Goodwyn followed 103 hearing children up to the age of 3. They found that children who were taught signs from the age of 11 months made their first meaningful sign-one they could use in several different contexts-on average one month before they spoke their first comparable word.

Some linguists call these studies flawed because they are based on reports from parents, who may over-interpret their children's gestures as having more meaning than the child intends. Parents who report that their child makes the ASL sign for "milk"-a one-handed movement reminiscent of squeezing a cow's udder-may actually be seeing the opening and closing fist that babies naturally make when excited, some researchers warn.

One of the critics is Pettito, director of McGill's Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory for Language, Sign and Cognition. What's being reported in Acredolo's research is "probably not language," she says.

"There's a very strong claim being made here-that children sign before they speak-that's just not true," Pettito says. "What's getting confused is that children already have a natural gestural repertoire, parts of which are being pulled out and drilled." She suggests that the early infant signs reported in Bonvillian's studies constituted manual "babbling," babies' early experimentation with signing word fragments. This stage, corresponding to the "ba-ba-ba" of speaking babies, she says, precedes real word formation in both speech and signing.

Who's This Really For?

Up until the 1980s, some parents feared that teaching sign language to babies would delay normal speech. The Acredolo-Goodwyn study findings, published in peer-reviewed journals in 1993 and 2000, laid that fear to rest; they found that baby signing gave hearing children an advantage in speech development, including more rapid expansionof vocabulary and earlier graduation to simple sentences. The advantages appeared to last into the early elementary years. When Acredolo and Goodwyn revisited children from their study at the age of 8, the children who had been taught signs in infancy scored at the level of typical 9-year-olds-on average 12 points higher on an IQ test than children who had no sign training.

"What we saw early on is that these children were advanced in comprehension and [word] production through age 3. You get a jump-start in language and you'll continue to excel," Acredolo says. "IQ tests at age 8 have a very large linguistic component. So it makes sense that their language advantage would continue to show."

Was it a language ability that made the difference? Or was it heightened self-confidence? It's not clear.

Parental enthusiasm may reinforce both, says Acredolo.

She cites, for example, a 13-month-old boy who toddled over to a store display of shirts, pointed to the Izod insignia and signed "crocodile." In that kind of situation, Acredolo says, a parent is likely to lavish the baby with praise.

Some parents and professionals are convinced that signing may also reduce frustration between babies and parents, but there are no solid data to support that assertion.

Noted child development expert Burton L. White, author of the parenting classic "The First Three Years of Life," recommends teaching signs starting at about 7 months of age to help reduce the tantrums that often accompany the "terrible twos." White notes that many children, especially boys, will have few spoken words until their second birthday. The period between 17 and 20 months of age can be particularly difficult, he says, because children that age have a limited tolerance for frustration, coupled with an inability to express themselves. "A child who can sign at that stage of life is a child who will cause considerably less frustration for himself and his parents," White writes.

Two-year-old Jonah Messinger, who attends KinderHaus, may be a case in point. His mother, Kira Plagge, says signing has been particularly helpful for Jonah because he is less verbal than many of his peers. Plagge says she first became aware that Jonah was learning signs at KinderHaus when he signed "bear" as she was reading him a story about animals. She says signing with Jonah made her more attuned to his needs at times when the only word he could say was "no."

"It's really amazing if you stop from the routine of your day and take a peek at your kid. You realize they really want to communicate," says Plagge. "When you learn ASL, you realize deaf people have to pay attention to people's facial expressions. They have to care about what you're feeling, because if they don't, they won't communicate."

Carolyn Stephan, of Fairfax, says signing helped tremendously in reducing the frustration of her daughter Grace, now 2½. "There were so many occasions when we wouldn't have any idea why she was crying," she says. Then came the time she knew why, because Grace told her: In the back seat of the car, Grace had gotten her finger jammed in the car seat belt. In between her screams, she was signing "stuck" with the other hand.

Doing It for the Right Reasons

Boosting your child's IQ is one of the benefits listed on a Web page advertising signing workshops in the Washington area. "First-time or older parents want to try this method as a way to be ahead of the game," says Lillian Hubler, whose Fairfax company, Talking Hands, has trained more than 200 parents and day care providers in ASL signs in the past year and a half.

But experts caution that one study is not enough to prove intellectual gains. More important, some express concern that it may get parents involved for the wrong reasons.

Baby signing is "certainly not harmful," says John W. Hagen, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and executive officer of the Society for Research in ChildDevelopment, which includes some 5,000 researchers and related professionals. But he notes that other kinds of intense and stimulating interactions between parents and babies, such as reading picture books and talking to babies about the illustrations, may be just as productive.

"What I don't want to see happen is that parents be told, based on current research, they should be doing [baby signing], and if they're not it's harming their child's development," Hagen cautions. "I think we're hearing more that what's really important for cognitive development is a secure emotional situation."

Hagen says it's not at all clear whether signing gives a child a long-term advantage or just a temporary edge. "If parents are doing this to get the kid into the right prep school, forget it," he advises. As with any activity for young children, Hagen says, "If the child seems to be enjoying it and having fun, that's the most important criterion."

Could drilling babies in sign produce the kind of stress some children feel when forced to do drills with math flash cards? Not likely. Garcia contends it's impossible to "force-feed" babies sign language; they will simply turn their heads away. It's a better bet that signing is a stress reliever, he suggests. "Countless times I've heard from parents who sign, 'Now I stop and explain things I normally would gloss over.' Parents slow down and rather than just butter the bread, explain it."

UC-Davis psychologist Goodwyn is also more interested in baby signing as a psychological bridge between parent and child. "If somebody proved the babies are not using symbolic language, it wouldn't take away from what baby signs are doing in the real world," Goodwyn says. "Where we're heading is . . . making parenting a more rewarding and enriching experience. . . . When parents enjoy their babies, it's better for babies."

Erting shares this view.

"If the parent sees that first sign as meaningful, that will reinforce the child's production of that behavior. In that sense, the parents are right" that the first sign meant something, Erting says. "Would linguists look at it as language? No. Is it functional communication, and does it produce something positive? Yes."

That may be good enough reason for parents to try it, until more researchevidence comes in.

Sarah Glazer is a freelance writer in New York.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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