Monday, October 11, 2010

Talking With Her Hands

Hannah learned the sign for "more" last week, and when she realized that she was physically capable of doing what I was doing, and that doing so meant that she'd get more raisins, her face lit up.  It was a total light bulb moment.  I mean, she gets that nodding and shaking her head indicates yes or no, and she’s learned to wave her hands around like crazy when she’s “all done” being strapped into her booster seat at the table, and she’s even learned to blow lightly when I say that something is hot, but somehow signing “more” seemed more of a turning point in her communication. Maybe because it didn’t come as naturally as the others, because it’s not something we do on a daily basis like nodding yes.  Of course, the most natural sign for her was the one she made up for “give me that” which she does by stretching out her right arm and tilting her head to the right so that her cheek is on her shoulder.  Sometimes she opens and closes her fingers, and she almost always does her Muppet sound: "Meh!"  The longer it takes to figure out what she wants, the angrier and louder "MEH!" gets.  Since the object of “meh” is often a drink (or my cell phone, the TV remote, a hairbrush, a sharp knife, or other items I try not to let her play with), I’ve been working on teaching her the sign for drink.  She's pretty stuck on "more" though and equates it not just with the word “more” but also with the word “sign” so that when I show her the sign for drink and ask her if she can do it, she smiles and signs “more.”  

We've been using the website for signs. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating that this site is awesome because it has videos of real people signing which is infinitely easier than trying to decipher a diagram with hands and arrows and lines pointing and going in all directions. 

The Baby Signs book that I read encourages you to let the kid make up his/her own signs and has a dictionary of ideas for these easy made up signs in the back. This makes sense for purposes of communicating with your baby/toddler who may not be able to do some of the complicated motions, but I think signing should be treated like any other language. I mean, I'm not going to encourage Hannah to say dwink instead of drink just because she can't say her "r's". I'll keep saying "drink" because that's correct and when she's capable, she'll say it too, and in the meantime, I know what she’s talking about. So we are starting with ASL signs and however she needs to modify them is obviously fine.  

I've recently been in touch with a representative of Primrose Schools, Kathleen Thomas, who's been involved in teaching young children sign language and co-authored the following article on its benefits:

Early Childhood Education – Acquiring Sign Language

One of the keys to surviving in a tilted economic system in which opportunities to achieve a decent standard of living will be limited is versatility – and the ability to communicate articulately in a variety of ways with the widest possible audience. This includes bilingual ability as well as the ability to communicate in non-verbal ways for the benefit of the disabled – primarily the deaf.

At the same time, a growing shortage of qualified interpreters fluent in American Sign Language has led to more career opportunities – and if current trends continue, it's likely that skilled ASL interpreters will have little problem securing lucrative employment in a society where such a commodity is destined to be in short supply.

Signing Before They Can Speak

A great deal of research has clearly demonstrated that the early years – ages 2 to five – are the best time to educate children in different modes of communication and language. This goes beyond the spoken word (though it is an optimal time for children to learn a second language); many young children have an aptitude for signing as well.

This is not as odd as you may think. As you know, many indigenous peoples around the world, including American Indian nations, have used sign language for centuries to facilitate communication with other tribes with whom they do not share a language. Some paleontologists and anthropologists theorize that Neanderthals – who apparently lacked the vocal mechanism to produce many spoken words – depended a great deal upon hand gestures to communicate.

In fact, recent research suggests that sign language is innate. An article published in the Boulder Daily Camera in 2003 presented strong evidence that babies as young as six months old communicate with their hands:

                                " 6 to 7 months, babies can remember a sign. At eight months, children
                                can begin to imitate gestures and sign single words. By 24 months, children
                                can sign compound words and full sentences. They say sign language reduces
                                frustration in young children by giving them a means to express themselves
                                before they know how to talk." (Glarion, 2003)

The author also cites study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development demonstrating that young children who are taught sign language at an early age actually develop better verbal skills as they get older. The ability to sign has also helped parents in communicating with autistic children; one parent reports that "using sign language allowed her to communicate with her [autistic] son and minimized his frustration...[he now] has an advanced vocabulary and excels in math, spelling and music" (Glarion, 2003).

The Best Time To Start

Not only does early childhood education in signing give pre-verbal youngsters a way to communicate, it can also strengthen the parent-child bond – in addition to giving children a solid foundation for learning a skill that will serve them well in the future. The evidence suggests that the best time to start learning ASL is before a child can even walk – and the implications for facilitating the parent-child relationship are amazing.

Co-written by Emily Patterson and Kathleen Thomas

Emily and Kathleen are Communications Coordinators for the Indiana day care facility, a member of the AdvancED® accredited family of Primrose Schools (located in 16 states throughout the U.S.) and part of the network of day care preschools delivering progressive, early childhood, Balanced Learning® curriculum.

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