Finger Lingo

Nineteen-month-old Fiona Brooks was with her dad at an indoor flea market when she spotted a friend through the crowds, across the room. She began pointing and making the American Sign Language gesture for "friend." Her dad noticed and brought her over to visit with an adult who was working there whom little Fiona had met on several occasions. Eighteen-month-old Justin was at a party with his parents, playing with a bunch of toddlers who were also present. His mother looked over at him and noticed he was signing "toilet" to her. She immediately went over and took him away to change his diaper. Ten-month-old Caitlin awoke in the middle of the night, screaming. Her mom rushed over to her crib, wondering what was wrong. Desperate, her mom shouted to her "Show me what's wrong!" Caitlin pointed to her ear. Her mom immediately knew she must have an ear infection, and got her treatment right away.Fiona, Justin and Caitlin can all hear and are all showing signs of normal speech development. But they all have one thing in common: Their parents thought it important to teach them sign language.Fiona's parents wanted her to learn because a relative had taught her child with amazing results. "I figured it would help ease her frustration to be able to say what she wanted or needed," says Fiona's mom, Vanessa. In addition to being able to communicate with her, says Vanessa, "I knew how stimulating to her mind it would be." Fiona's parents began teaching her signs at six months, and Fiona began using them when she was about nine months old. "She paid so much attention to what people were saying and doing with their hands. It made her more outgoing and social. She's learning so much each time we do it," says Vanessa.According to Joseph Garcia, author of the new Sign With Your Baby program that is designed to help hearing parents of hearing kids use sign language, teaching signing as a first language has nothing but positive benefits over the long-term.Garcia became interested in sign language after going out to dinner with a group of deaf friends many years ago. From that experience, he began studying speech development, infant education and eventually adult education. During his many years of research, Garcia says, he noticed that hearing children of deaf parents started communicating with sign language at an earlier age than other hearing children did with words. He realized that all hearing kids who were pre-verbal would be able to benefit from using sign language, as well. "Hand gestures are simple and help avoid the frustrating period, 17 to 20 months of age, when a child is trying to communicate and oftentimes can't," he says. According to Garcia, recently released studies have determined that hearing children who sign also speak earlier and have more to say. The research is important, he says, because a common misimpression is that if children sign, their speech development may be delayed. But the research has proved just the opposite, he says."Learning sign actually helps facilitate and encourage speech development. Longitudinal studies show that at age 7, signing kids scored higher on IQ tests than those who didn't," says Garcia. "I'm not trying to created genius babies," he says, but "countless parents have told me the same thing. Kids can communicate so clearly and well when they finally learn to speak." It seems so obvious to encourage children to communicate anyway they can. And Garcia's current projects focus on trying to relate that to adults. Even so, he says, there are several reasons why sign language has not been accepted or embraced even more. In addition to the proven mistaken impression that signing will delay speech, he says, "Many in the hearing culture are prejudiced against using sign," he says. To some, "It's seen as a sign of disability rather than a symbol of ability," he says.Many signing systems have been used with the deaf. In the early 1800s, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc brought to the United States from France a signing system called "natural" sign language. In 1816, Gallaudet established the American School for the Deaf. Students were taught sign language and the method gradually evolved into American Sign Language (ASL). In the 1850s, oralism was incorporated with signing. Then in 1880, during an international convention in Milan that both Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell attended, Bell passed a resolution to just use speech over signs in working with the deaf. It wasn't until the 1950s in this country that William Stokoe reintroduced the benefits of sign language, in research that continued through the 1970s.Since then, English-based signing systems have been used with the deaf, with ASL being used largely in the past 10 years, according to audiologist Kim Niday. Niday has taught hearing impaired children for the past several years. "From my experience, a lot of controversy in deaf education has been whether or not to teach children orally only or by using some sort of signing system. The idea was to get kids to read better with a higher literacy rate, but we found it just wasn't improving with most deaf kids before using ASL," she says. ASL was brought to the United States from France about 100 years ago, and has taken on its own variation here, says Niday. For a long time, ASL was used in dormitories of deaf schools, but was not allowed to be used in classrooms. Then, says Niday, "research showed that kids who were deaf and also had parents who were deaf and used ASL had much better language abilities than was typically expected. Their abilities were age appropriate." Now, the trend is to teach ASL to deaf children."ASL is the only complete language available visually. It gives the child a whole language so cognitive and language abilities can grow," she says. Some deaf children are "mainstreamed" into regular schools where both sign language and speech is encouraged, while others are exposed to deaf culture, perspective and adults. Either way, says Niday, the idea is to let deaf children know "they can be complete people without needing to talk."For either deaf or hearing children, says Niday, the educational research has been proved: Once you have one language, it's easier to learn another. With deaf children as well as hearing children, there are hesitancies to teaching signing, says Niday. "When a child is first identified with hearing loss, there may be denial, guilt, grief, why didn't we know earlier, etc.," she says. "Deafness is also one of the invisible disabilities, and if the child signs, parents may feel ashamed that people will be aware of the disability," she says.Niday notes, however, that there are some good reasons parents choose not to sign with their kids. In some cases, children don't have the motor development or other capabilities to sign. "Many children with hearing loss are able to develop age-appropriate language abilities without signing. They develop language through speech and audition alone or with English-based sign systems," she says. The method that works best for each individual child varies with the child's learning style and degree of hearing loss, among many other factors, she adds. "The one constant for successful language development, however, seems to be the parents' support and active involvement in the child's language development. Parents who sign with their hearing children are also showing an interest in their child's communication abilities," she says.And of course, there are the obvious benefits to teaching signing to little ones. For one thing, if a signing deaf child walks into a room with signing hearing children, communication won't be an issue. And for parents, signing gives them a break. "If children can just sign diaper, or eat or drink, it's easier than having parents parade everything out of the house and dangle it in front of their faces to get them to quit crying," says Niday. Garcia's and others' research shows that kids can start using signs as early as eight months, and toddlers can use single and sometimes even multiple signs, up to one year before they effectively use speech. The key to exposing your children to sign language, notes Garcia, is to not show disappointment or frustration if your child isn't learning quickly. "Some parents want so badly to try to teach signs to their infants. That's not how to do it. Use signs as augmentation to normal experiential communication. The child will relate that gesture to the object." For example, if your child has finished her juice and wants more, show her the sign for "more." "It's quite common to introduce a sign and your child doesn't react. Suddenly a few weeks later, he's making the sign in context and you only mentioned it that once," says Garcia.It's also common for a child to make up his or her own signs for objects. And that's fine, too. Little Fiona has morphed the sign for "Daddy" from a thumb pointing to the forehead to simply an index finger pointing somewhere near her ear. It's OK, he knows what she means.From her experience, Fiona's mother Vanessa says, "The worst thing you can do is underestimate what a kid can do."***When to Introduce SignsNotice different types of gazes between you and your infant. They are moments of mutual perception and good opportunities to introduce signs. Expressive gazes. These happen when your infant has a need, or wants to express a feeling or ask a question. For example, if your child has finished eating something and wants more, he/she will indicate to you with a glance. This is a great opportunity to introduce the sign "more," one of the first signs children learn.Chance mutual gazes. You and your infant look at each other at the same time for no particular reason. You are tuned into each other and this is a good time to introduce a sign for something like a book that may be nearby. Pointed gazes. You and your child look at the same thing at the same time and then look at each other. For example, if a cat enters the room, this is a great time to teach the sign for cat.Much of this is common sense and would occur naturally. The main point is to keep the introduction of signs in context so your child attaches the appropriate meaning. Say a word at the same time you sign it.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close