Hand-y Talk: Sign Language supplements early language development

For some, it looks like little more than fingers smacking one another in almost random fashion. For others, it’s a vision of rhythmic conversation.

Widely considered the fourth most commonly used language in the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) is a language employing gestures made with the hands and other movements, including facial expressions and postures of the body.

Once confined to communicating with the deaf, sign language is undergoing a rebirth as a way for new parents to understand the needs of their children long before verbal communication begins. Sign language has even resonated with Hollywood culture as movies including “Meet the Fockers” leverage humor-filled scenes of adults—specifically Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller-- as they strive to respond to a toddler signing the word ‘milk.’ 

In the special needs community however, sign language has, and can, provide a meaningful piece of the early language development pie – often bringing much needed relief from months of inquisition, frustration, sadness, emotional desperation and worse, silence.

Imagine how frustrating it would be if you knew what you wanted to say, but were unable to say it. This exact same frustration grips infants and children who oftentimes know what they want or need, but cannot express themselves.

According to Signing Time (www.signingtime.com) co-founder Rachel Coleman, “Children naturally play with their hands as they develop fine motor skills. Adding rhythm and movement to hand play helps commit all elements to memory.” Perfect examples of the marriage between physical and verbal communication are childhood favorites, ‘The Eensy Weensy Spider’ or ‘Pat-a-Cake.’

Coleman, a mother of two girls--Leah (who is deaf) and Lucy (who has cerebral palsy and spina bifida)--created a captivating, entertaining family of products to make sign language accessible to all children.

In her words, “Every child can benefit from sign language. Pre-verbal infants and toddlers can easily communicate through signs before they can speak. Children with special needs often find that sign language is the miracle of communication. In the nine years I have been sharing sign language with others, I have never once heard from a parent who did not feel there was benefit to using sign language.”

For Stow residents Joshua Libby and Maisie Hochella, sign language isn’t just a supplemental form of communication - it's a daily ritual.

Joshua, who became profoundly deaf at the age of 3 due to pneumococcal meningitis, not only uses standard America Sign Language, but an advanced form of sign called ‘cueing’ with his wife Maisie-- who is not hearing-impaired.

In February 2005, the couple gave birth to daughter Harper, who was born with Down syndrome and consequently, failed her newborn

hearing test while in the hospital. The initial concern was that Harper would be permanently hearing-impaired. Harper, now 22-months,

hears normally, yet her parents have adopted use of both verbal and physical cues to communicate with their little girl. Mom Maisie also learned cueing so that the family can correspond with one another — sometimes without having to speak a single word.

Sign language – yay or nay?

The introduction and use of sign language in early stages of language development remains a subject of parental controversy -- plagued by societal stigmas and an innate need to verbally communicate with one another. In addition, those opposed to the use of sign language believe that it will impede or delay language development, while others feel increased anxiety about how others will perceive them should they use sign language in public. 

Interestingly, when babies first wave ‘bye-bye,’ our first response isn’t, ‘oh no, my child will never be able to say “bye-bye”,’ or to worry that their reversed, upside down wave will generate loathsome glances from onlookers. Rather, we and others rejoice in our child’s ability to communicate.

Sign language is no different. Incorporating signs into daily routines does not require fluency in American Sign Language. A few simple gestures can not only empower a child, but also give parents a sense of comfort knowing that they are meeting the needs of their child—sans the guesswork.

In addition, comprehensive research (Linda P. Acredolo; University of California, Davis and Susan W. Goodwyn from California State University, Stanislaus) also found that sign language users score higher intelligence quotients (IQs) and strongly supports the hypothesis that symbolic gesturing facilitates the early stages of verbal language development. While linguists, speech pathologists and sign language professionals can debate the research, statistics and merits for years to come, the prospect of greater parent-child bonding, communication with a non-verbal infant, and potential for higher IQ is quite a temptation for parents who truly want their child to be all that he or she can be.

Regardless of mental or physical ability, all children have a desire and need to communicate. Some use pointing and grunting, while others are able to vocalize their desires with words.

Putting aside the controversy, the introduction of sign language simply gives parents and caregivers one more tool to facilitate early communication with their child — especially if that child has special needs — be it a delay in speech, cognition, gross or fine motor skills, mental acuity or hearing impairment. In the end, parents could in fact, be introducing another language skill in which their child may actually be fluent prior to the first day of preschool. 

Tips for Introducing Sign Language

Katherine Rosania, who works as an Early Intervention Specialist for the Professional Center for Child Development (www.theprofessionalcenter.org) in Andover, suggests the following tips once parents and caregivers make the commitment to introduce and use sign language: 

Select 3-5 concrete and tangible items that your child is interested in and begin to introduce sign by signing those concepts first. Examples would be ‘bottle,’ ‘milk,’ ‘cookie’ or ‘juice.’

Determine those things your child is most interested in and what they wish to communicate about such as ‘eat,’ ‘play,’ ‘more’ and ‘all done.’

Use sign language in conjunction with verbal language. For example, say the word ‘more’ while doing the sign so that association is made between the verbal and physical cues.

Reinforce all of your child’s communication attempts. Even if the child uses a somewhat adapted or even abstract sign to start, as fine motor skills and cognition develop, signs too will improve.

Consistency and repetition are critical keys to success. Use sign language in daily activities when eating, playing, reading, etc. Repetitive use will help solidify meanings, physical hand movements and help both parents and their children to use the signs consistently.

Additional Resources

Signing Time (www.signingtime.com), a family of products designed to introduce sign language, including DVDs, VHS tapes, CDs, flash cards and board books. The founders also host a weekly chat to discuss topics of interest every Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m. EST.

The Professional Center for Child Development (www.theprofessionalcenter.org) provides support services to children with disabling conditions, teaches parents to be successful advocates for their children, works to transition children successfully to public school settings, and educates public organizations on how to provide continued community based support for children with special needs.

Sign2Me www.sign2me.com

http://commtechlab.msu.edu/Sites/aslweb/browser.htm. This site is wonderful because it has a Flash video of a person making the sign that can be watched. Oftentimes, 2-D drawings can be confusing, and this web site makes learning ASL easy.

Visit www.cuedspeech.org and http://web7.mit.edu/CuedSpeech/ for more information about cued speech, an advanced form of sign language.

By Wendy Bulawa
GateHouse News Service
Wednesday, December 27, 2006