LIVING TUESDAY  July 3, 2001

BABY TALK
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

Joseph Pabian is only 4 months old, but he already knows the word "milk" in sign language.

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 subject.

"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 months.

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 concept.

"People are a little hesitant," she said. "The first thing my mom said was, 'He's not going to learn to talk.' "

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 communication."

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 effects.

"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 intelligence.

"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 relationship."

"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 months.

"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 it."

FOR MORE INFORMATION
> To find out about Little Signers' infant sign language classes (six sessions for $135) being taught throughout metro Atlanta, go to www.littlesigners.com.
> 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 www.sign2me.com.
> 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 www.focusites.com/babysigns/index.html.
> 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.


 
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