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Articles / 2007

Babies relay needs without words
Sign language being taught to parents, infants

Ventura County Star
By Anna Chang-Yen

When 15-month-old Jake wants his favorite toy, a tiger doll, he scrunches his fingers into claw shapes and presses them to his face.

It could have been tough for the non-verbal tot to communicate with his parents about what he wants, the exchange ending with baby in tears. But not long after they knew they were expecting, Jake's parents, Joey Liu and Aiting Tung of Newbury Park, decided to teach sign language to their son from birth.

Jake now knows from 15 to 20 signs, including milk, blanket and eat.

The couple read on a parenting Web site about the trend of teaching hearing babies to sign. They ordered a book with an instructional video, but Liu said a Web site called the American Sign Language Browser has been most helpful for learning new signs.

Parents can take the do-it-yourself approach, or attend classes such as those offered at a handful of Ventura County hospitals and schools.

The trend is a couple of years old, with advocates pointing to research that shows signing students have larger vocabularies and increased language abilities compared to their non-signing peers. Opponents worry that signing can actually impair speech development.

Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura offers a baby signing class for 3- to 7-month-olds and their parents. Parent educator Sheila Dedrick said the class has been offered since 2005 and ranges in size from two to 20 participants.

Progress can be slow in coming.

"It's something that takes months for them to actually get it, but once they've got it, what happens is they're able to communicate before they're able to say what they want verbally," Dedrick said. "It really decreases that frustration for the 1 1/2- to 2-year-old who isn't able to verbalize everything they want."

Signing also is thought to help develop motor skills. We Sign, an Orange-based company that sells baby signing materials, suggests on its Web site that signing also may improve IQ scores.

At the Channel Islands Preparatory School of Music in Camarillo, a class called Sing & Sign teaches parents of children 6 months to 3 years to put sign language motions with the tune of favorite playtime songs, such as "This Little Piggy."

The school's Web site notes research by the founders of the Signing Smart program it uses. Hearing children who know signs learn language almost twice as fast, according to the site.

They put together short sentences from 11 to 14 months, as opposed to the average age of 20 months.

Mikaela Lebrett of Ventura said she and her husband wanted to teach their child to communicate in different ways. Some family members on her husband's side communicate in sign language, and he speaks Spanish.

Lebrett attended the Community Memorial class, and now at 1 year old, her son Ezekiel Ramos is starting to use signs for milk and eat, she said.

"It seemed like something different," she said. "We went to the class, talked to the lady, saw a movie watching babies actually do it. It looked like it could be a real educational benefit."

Liu has doubts that signing will make little Jake "smarter" in the long run, but for now, it's enough to think of the possible short-term language boost and the convenience factor.

"It probably provides a little bit of a developmental head start, but really it just fulfills a potential that's not really fulfilled when they're just crying and they want something."