Signing On

June 4, 2003

Perhaps nothing is more frustrating to a bright toddler than the inability to adequately communicate needs and wants. Until recently, little ones often had to wait for their verbal skills to catch up, but now parents and childcare professionals are exploring a new use for toddlers' hands: sign language.
Hand motions for bye-bye, clapping and peekaboo are tried-and-true baby standbys, but teaching babies to sign takes these rudimentary skills to a new level, and it is the latest craze to hit the infant/toddler set. A recent Internet search on Google for "baby sign language" produced almost 2,000 links.
Baby sign language is the brainchild of Dr. Linda Acredolo, professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis, and Dr. Susan Goodwyn, professor of child development at California State University at Stanislaus. The pair invented the language that includes more than 100 gestures, some of them American Sign Language (ASL) signs, and co-authored a best-selling book titled Baby Signs.
Baylor's Piper Child Development Center is a big proponent of teaching Baby Signs to infants and toddlers. Tammie Garland, one of the center's teachers, says she begins teaching the signs when the child enrolls, which usually is between the age of 3 months and 6 months. She likes the Baby Signs method because it uses simple gestures for simple words.
Garland says the first signs they teach are those used at meals. "We teach the signs for 'more,' 'finished,' 'please' and 'thank you.' The children usually pick it up quickly because we are consistent about using the signs," she says. "We found that once they learn the signs, there is less frustration for the child and the caregiver."
Lori Wrzesinski, senior lecturer in ASL in Baylor's Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, agrees that babies can learn sign language quickly. "Babies are little sponges," she says. "They pick up the basic signs so quickly, because infants and toddlers use their fingers and hands as their articulators. They can move these much sooner than the precise muscle movements required to produce verbal speech."
Wrzesinski taught her son, Joshua, 11, to sign when he was a toddler, but unlike the Piper Center, she used ASL signs. She estimates that by the time he was 3, Joshua had a vocabulary of 40 to 50 signs. "My goal with my son was for him to have a second language," she says. "I taught signing differently from parents of hearing children, because I did not use my voice at all. I would just sign to him and he would sign back."
Wrzesinski stresses that parents still can try signing with their children, even if they don't know ASL or Baby Signs. "Parents can come up with symbols they want to use," she says. "The goal is to give the child a symbol to represent something. It doesn't matter what the gesture is as long as it is simple and associated with the object. And the signs should be for things that babies need -- more, eat, drink, sleep." 
And parents shouldn't worry that signing will delay speech in their child. A study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by Acredolo and Goodwyn showed that teaching sign language actually strengthens verbal skills. Plus, the dominant culture will prevail, Wrzesinski says. "Hearing children will learn to speak because the world around them speaks."

Carlson, BA '86, is senior staff writer in media relations in the Office of Public Relations.