||TUESDAY • July 3, 2001
By gesturing and using
sign language, some infants and young children are learning how to
communicate before they learn to speak, researchers say Healthy
Living: Your Tuesday guide to medicine and health care
Anne Fawcett - Staff
Tuesday, July 3, 2001
is only 4 months old, but he already knows the word "milk" in sign
When he's hungry, he opens his mouth
and squeezes his fist to resemble the motion for milking a cow,
mimicking the sign his mother uses every time he nurses.
Although he can hear Lily Pabian speak,
signing is another way for them to communicate. "When I lift my
hands, he's focused on them," she said.
Pabian, of Tucker, is among an
increasing number of parents across Atlanta and the nation who are
communicating with pre-verbal, hearing infants using sign language.
And what they and researchers have learned --- that babies have the
intellectual ability to understand and use language months before
they speak --- has challenged some common views of early child
development, says Joseph Garcia, a longtime researcher on the
"Maybe the muscles in the mouth haven't
developed until 20 months, but babies have the cognitive ability to
understand communication through shared gestures much earlier," said
Garcia, who started his research in the 1970s, when he noticed that
deaf infants were using sign language to communicate on a more
sophisticated level than hearing infants of the same age.
Hearing babies speak their first word,
on the average, when they're 13 months old and speak two- or
three-word sentences by the time they're 20 months old. In contrast,
some babies can start signing words such as "more" and "milk" at 8
months and can build vocabularies of dozens of signs within
All babies are different, so others
might not begin signing until their first birthday. Young babies
such as Joseph might have learned to associate the milk sign with
nursing, but he may not realize he's asking for milk, said Laura
Namy, a professor of psychology at Emory University.
Namy's research showing that young
children learn signs as readily as spoken words suggests that humans
are not necessarily hard-wired to communicate through speech.
"It's as if they're starting out not
really knowing the right modality to communicate," she said. ''As
they figure out language over time, they learn primarily words, and
gesture to supplement them."
Although early communication can help
children develop confidence and problem-solving skills, Garcia said,
some parents might choose not to use signs because they don't want
their hearing children to be perceived as deaf. Other parents could
fear delaying their children's speaking skills.
Pabian, who started taking infant sign
language classes as an activity to share with Joseph, said other
mothers she knows weren't especially interested in the
"People are a little hesitant," she
said. "The first thing my mom said was, 'He's not going to learn to
Not true, says Sarah Preston,
co-founder of Alpharetta-based Little Signers, which teaches
Pabian's class. Research has shown that babies who learn to
communicate with sign language are quicker to speak than their
peers, Preston said. Signing creates a more verbal environment,
because babies initiate conversations about subjects that interest
them, and their parents more consciously repeat words, she said. In
addition, earlier exposure to successful communication drives babies
to want to speak.
"Once (babies) figure out that 'I can
do this and they understand me,' they'll figure out ways to
communicate," Preston said. "This opens the door to
And there is some evidence that signing
can have long-term positive effects on children's intelligence. One
study found that 19 8-year-olds who learned signing as babies had an
average IQ score of 114, while a sample of 24 children who never
learned signs averaged 102. Researchers Linda Acredolo of the
University of California at Davis and Susan Goodwyn of California
State University took into account family income, education and
other factors that influence IQ scores.
Garcia says the increased connection
between signing parents and children creates these long-term IQ
"Parents tend to not fully engage in
their children until there's two-way communication," he said.
But Acredolo insists that parents
shouldn't look at signing as a vehicle to increase their children's
"We've been painted as a 'better baby'
institute," she said. "That's not what our research is for. The most
important reason to do baby signing is to enrich the parent-child
"It's wonderful to find another way to
communicate with your child," said Dr. Michael Levine, a
pediatrician with Northside Pediatrics in Atlanta. "Any way that
parents can do that is great."
A closer relationship is what prompted
Belinda Carroll of Lawrenceville to sign with daughter Savannah, 15
"I bonded with her much better,"
Carroll said. "I don't get frustrated, because she's not frustrated.
I get comments all the time about, 'Gosh, does she ever cry?' " And
more parents seem to be catching on. Acredolo is co-author of "Baby
Signs: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk," which
has sold more than 200,000 copies, and three message boards on the
subject have popped up on Yahoo.com.
"In the last year and a half, I've seen
more inquiry from parents about the process," said Sherri Van Brunt,
lead teacher with infant programs at Quality Times Child Development
Center in Alpharetta.
But such programs are not for everyone.
"It's not for the busy parent who just has time to make sure the
baby is fed and put to bed," Preston said.
Little Signers teaches Garcia's
American Sign Language system, but researcher Acredolo encourages
parents and children to make up their own signs. Either method is
fine, Namy said. Made-up signs are simpler, but ASL provides an
opportunity to communicate with the deaf community later.
"What really matters is the interaction
with the parents," Namy said. "If they're excited and using it in a
frequent and consistent way, the kids are going to pick up on
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To find out about Little Signers' infant sign language classes (six
sessions for $135) being taught throughout metro Atlanta, go to
> To read about Joseph Garcia's
research and order a Sign With Your Baby learning kit ($49.95),
including a video, a book and a quick reference guide, go to
> To read about Linda Acredolo and Susan
Goodwyn's research and order their book, "Baby Signs: How to Talk
With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk" ($12.95, NTC/Contemporary
Publishing Co.), go to
> Parents of children
up to age 5 who would like to participate in Laura Namy's research
can contact the Emory Child Research Group at 404-727-7432.