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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Parentsí Guide to Baby Signs: Early Communication with Your Infant

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In 1999, Dr. Kimberlee Whaley of Ohio State University conducted a study in the campus childcare center. Her results indicate that signing in childcare settings significantly reduces noise levels and decreases the frustration levels of staff (and, most likely, children too). Caregivers are then able to spend more time in nurturing interactions with the children rather than in crisis management. The need for conflict resolution is significantly reduced as well.6

Joseph Garcia also promotes the use of signs with hearing preverbal youngsters, but unlike Acredolo and Goodwyn and others, he advocates the use of ASL signs. Garcia monitored babies who were exposed to ASL and concluded that the use of established signs rather than homemade gestures was incredibly beneficial to the babiesí language development. His technique is well documented in the SIGN[*] with Your BABY publications.7

American Sign Language is the preferred language of the American Deaf community. It is also useful for those hearing individuals who have little or no spoken language abilities. ASL has been used successfully with children who have apraxia, autism, Down syndrome, and learning and reading disabilities. In addition, inclusive and multilingual classrooms that incorporate signs for all children find communication barriers can be markedly reduced.8 As a nurse I have found that patients big and small will readily use signs to communicate their thoughts and needs in certain medical situations. Signs like PAIN, MEDICINE, TOILET, YES, NO, EAT, and DOCTOR can be easily taught to post-operative patients, as well as patients who require mechanical ventilation or are receiving certain other therapies.

Acquiring Language

Current research supports the theory that infants have the cognitive ability to receive and understand language much earlier than ever before expected. The timeline for developing expressive language is different between signing babies and those who rely only on oral communication. From birth to about six months of age, most babies cry and coo to express themselves. Around six months, babies begin to babble, that is they produce what seem to be random sounds. By 12 to 15 months, they can produce one-word utterances that are identifiable words from the parentsí language. A child typically can be expected to begin using simple two-word phrases at one to two years of age. Telegraphic (more concise) speech, using relatively full sentences, and the learning of appropriate tenses and word order can be expected to begin at three to four years of age. Most children acquire two-thirds of their everyday vocabulary by their third birthday.9

In contrast, typically developing infants who are exposed to and learn ASL can develop the ability to express themselves well before their first birthday.10 Sean at one year of age had a vocabulary of more than 100 signs, and by 18 months his verbal aptitude matched his signing proficiency. Aleah could sign her basic needs when she was four months old. Our childrenís knack for signing may seem extraordinary, but these are typical experiences for families who commit to using ASL signs.


* Words in capital letters represent signs.
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