Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Baby Signs

There's a big trend among parents these days to teach sign language to infants. I got interested in this idea when Joseph was a baby and we made a few attempts here and there during his first year. He learned his first sign (ceiling fan) just before his first birthday. He learned "more" Thanksgiving Day. By New Year's he was learning signs about as fast as we could teach them. By the time he began talking the next summer he knew about eighty signs.

Some people worry that teaching sign language to babies harms their verbal ability. There is no real evidence for this as long as the parents speak to their kids as well (not a problem at our house). Most researchers agree that learning signs strengthens a child's overall linguistic ability. Joseph's verbal ability continues to impress many people we meet. It's hard to believe this is the same kid who was recommended for speech therapy at ten months of age (we declined the therapy).

Our success teaching Joseph to sign has made me an enthusiastic advocate of this mode of infant communication. It's a lot of fun and reduces frustration all around. It was amazing to sign with Joseph. He was always watching the world around him and always thinking. He would notice tiny things we'd missed and sign to us. Sometimes we had to look really hard but we always found that he was communicating real things. This has continued to hold true with Joseph's verbal communication. He always has a reason for saying what he's saying even if that reason isn't immediately apparent to his busy, scatter-brained parents.

We've started signing with Margaret. In some ways she's picking it up even faster than Joseph did but sometimes we wonder if she gets it. Sign language acquisition works the same way as verbal language acquisition. Signs are often imprecise or will all look the same for awhile. Margaret does a pretty clear "more" (food is such a good incentive!). She also has lots of opportunity for "doggie" as we have a pair of frequent barkers next door. The ability to sign "doggie" has completely eased her fear of the dogs. The same thing happened with Joseph when we taught him the sign for "siren". Margaret claps when we say "good job" and she usually manages "all done" when she doesn't want more to eat. She will sometimes do a loose approximation of the "nurse" sign.

This week I tried to branch out a little. We'd tried to teach her "hat" before (tapping the top of your head). She just hit herself in the face. We were reading a book about a zoo and I showed her "lion" (running hands through hair): she hit herself in the face. I tried "giraffe" (open hand along neck): she hit herself in the face. I tried "hot" (blowing) when the oven was on: she hit herself in the face. I guess we have a little work to do on subtlety.

I had an interesting insight into her personality when I tried to teach her "book" (opening palms in the shape of a book). I showed her and she immediately saw that I was trying to show her a sign and she tried to do it. She couldn't do it, so I took her hands in mine and did the motion for her. She tried to do it herself and couldn't. She made a frustrated sound and held her hands out to me so that I would do it for her again. Joseph probably would have just made up his own sign if he couldn't do the one we showed him. Margaret is a perfectionist. If she sees how book should be and can't do it, she won't sign book at all.

After all that . . . Margaret loves the camera so much that I can never capture her on film. As soon as she sees the camera she stops whatever cute thing she was doing and runs for the camera. Instead of illustrating this post with pictures of her signing I've shown her new favorite skill: climbing. We left the room before church Sunday and found that she'd climbed into the stroller all by herself. She was quite pleased and this activity kept her very busy and quiet during Mass later in the morning.

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