Use baby sign language to stimulate speech and language development.

Baby sign language is something speech-language pathologists have used for decades to stimulate vocabulary and expressive language in infants and toddlers.

Actually, it's not entirely accurate to call it "sign language," since it is not a true sign language like American Sign Language (ASL). Although it's common in the US to draw many baby signs from ASL, we don't teach the child to use full, grammatical ASL sentences. Rather, we use hand signs to emphasize key content words in our short, child-directed utterances.

Here's an example of the difference: if you want to say "I'll help you" using baby sign language, you would make the sign for I, then the sign for HELP, then the sign for YOU. Same order as in English, just ignoring the -'ll (which the child will probably do anyway at this stage). To form the same sentence in ASL, you would make the sign for HELP and move it from your chest toward the person you're talking to.

You don't need to take a course in ASL to do this. First, as I just said, you're not actually using ASL. Furthermore, a few signs will be plenty. Remember the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) on the page about talking slowly and simply? All you need is a few more signs than the number of words your child is already saying or signing. If your child is only saying 15 words, you might want signs for those 15 words plus another 15. You can learn 30 signs, right?

It's common practice when using baby sign language to draw signs from ASL (why re-invent the wheel?), but it's not necessary to use "correct" signs. Your goal is not to teach your child ASL so that she has access to the Deaf community—you just want to help her talk better. If your child loves raisins and you can't find the sign for RAISIN, make one up! As long as you consistently use the same sign with the same word, your child will learn to associate the sign with the word.

Here's a site with video demonstrations of more signs than you'll ever need to know, including RAISIN.

And here's a site that specifically deals with babies and sign language, including a glossary for baby signs.

Baby sign language is commonly used by speech-language pathologists working with young children with speech or language delays or disorders. But you can also use baby sign language with children who seem to be developing normally. Some parents start when the child is as young as six months; others start at birth. When my daughter, who does not have a speech or language disorder, was producing only single words, I signed to her quite a bit. Being a world-class language geek, I kept track of what words she produced, either orally or signed. When the total reached fifty, just as predicted by all the early language development textbooks, she signed her first two-word combination: MORE SING (I had just gotten done singing her a song). Chances are, she would have developed speech and language within normal limits with or without my use of baby sign language, but I think it went faster than if I hadn't taught her signs.

Occasionally I encounter a parent or teacher who objects to the use of baby sign language. The most common objections are:

"Sign language is for deaf people."

As I've already discussed, baby sign language is not really sign language. American Sign Language and other true sign languages (British Sign Language, Korean Sign Language, etc.) are fully developed, natural languages with their own grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structures. There are even regional accents and dialects of ASL. True, ASL is the language of the Deaf community in North America; but our goal with baby sign language is not to get access to the Deaf community, so we're not teaching true ASL. I don't even know ASL, so there's no way I can teach it! We may be borrowing some ASL signs, but that's a far cry from teaching your child "sign language."

"No one will be able to understand my child unless they've also learned signs."

This is the argument I have the most difficulty comprehending, since, in most cases, the child being discussed already (a) doesn't talk much, and (b) is hard to understand when she does. If this is the concern that's holding you back, make a list of all the people your child talks to on a regular basis. Then make a list of all the times in the past week that you have "translated" for your child. If the first list is long and the second list is short, you probably don't need to be using baby signs. Otherwise, accept that your child is not quite ready to run for president, and therefore does not need to be understood by the multitudes. Yet. Let your child play tee-ball before trying out for the Major Leagues. Once she starts using more words, you can turn your focus to making her speech more intelligible.

"What if signs become a 'crutch' for him and he never learns to speak?"

Have you ever broken your leg and needed a crutch? After your leg healed, did you keep using the crutch? Of course not. Why? Because it's a pain, that's why! It's much easier to walk on your own two legs if you're able. On the other hand, if your leg is broken, a crutch may be exactly what you need to recover your ability to walk. Staying in bed for six weeks because you're opposed to using crutches will result in muscle atrophy and prolong your recovery time. Baby signs are a temporary aid for language development—yes, like a crutch. After a while, children realize that talking with your mouth is faster and easier than talking with your hands. At that point, they stop signing and "go oral". Think of it as "physical therapy for their speech," or, if you will, "speech therapy." Now there's a concept! Someone ought to come up with a systematic, research-based way of helping people talk, the way physical therapists help people walk, and call it "speech therapy". Oh, wait—they already did.

"I want my child to speak, not sign!"

No child with whom I've used signs has ever continued signing after developing the ability to speak orally. I've also never seen a child start speaking orally as a result of being forbidden to use signs. And in case you're wondering, yes, I've seen it attempted. Don't get me started!

"I just don't see how it can work. How can teaching my child to make signs with her hands help her talk with her mouth?"

There are a number of likely reasons why baby sign language works. One is that the addition of visual input to the sound of the word helps the child process what you're saying. Because language flies at our ears at four to five syllables per second, a child in the early stages may have difficulty keeping up with it. Just as visual aids and written outlines help us follow along and pay attention during a lecture on a not-so-familiar subject, baby signs help your child process your spoken language by adding visual information that matches the auditory information they're receiving.

Along with that, most of us are not fluent in ASL. This is actually a good thing. Because we sign more slowly than we speak, using signs often forces us to slow our speaking rate (remember, we're talking slowly!), which is also beneficial.

But I believe the most compelling reason lies in the way the brain processes language. This explanation will be grossly oversimplified, but essentially, when you say a sentence like "I like cake," here is what the brain does:

1. First, it activates the words corresponding to the three concepts; these words are stored in an area of the left temporal lobe close to a section called Wernicke's area.

2. Next, the three words are sequenced in Wernicke's area according to the rules of (in this case English) grammar.

3. Then, the sequence of words is sent along a bundle of nerve fibers known as the arcuate fasciculus to an area in the frontal lobe known as Broca's area.

4. In Broca's area, the brain identifies the motor sequences (i.e., what muscles have to contract and in what order) necessary to turn the message into speech.

5. The commands for these motor sequences are sent to the appropriate areas of the primary motor cortex, also in the frontal lobe, to be relayed to the muscles, which contract as required.

In reality, the process is a lot more complex than I've described here, with feedback loops and fibers that cross over to the other hemisphere through the corpus callosum, as well as input and feedback from other areas of the brain such as the visual and auditory cortices, the somatosensory cortex, and so on, but here's the take-home message: the brain does not care whether the 'words' you are using are formed by the mouth or the hands!

Brain imaging research has revealed that, when we sign, the same areas of the brain are active as when we are speaking orally. The only difference is in where in the motor strip the commands for muscle contractions are sent—the very last step of the process. Everything else is the same.

So if you can get your child to use baby sign language, those signs will be stored as words and processed as words, stimulating and strengthening the areas of the brain that need to be stimulated and strengthened for language develop more efficiently.

A lot of athletes do weight training, but with the exception of professional weight lifters, they don't do it to get better at lifting weights. They do it to strengthen the muscles they use in their respective sports. If you think of baby sign language as "weight training" to strengthen those parts of your child's brain that are used for language, it makes a lot of sense. Happy signing! - Sign Language for Babies

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