Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Baby Signing

I came across baby signing years ago while I was in college, studying psychology. At the time, I was discovering a new field called language acquisition and development. This is the study of how children learn language, and fine tune their knowledge of the world around them through language. I was deeply interested in literacy and how children learn to read, as well as how they learn grammar rules. But my job at the time was a lead teacher in the one-year-old classroom at a nursery school, and I was becoming increasingly aware of how miraculous it is that infants learn language. It is never taught to them by conventional teaching methods, and it is much more than pure mimicking as 90% of all sentences are completely novel. Yet sometime within the first eighteen months of life, sometimes even before the child can walk (which is by far an easier feat in coordination!) an infant will utter his first word. It is like a sunrise over the grand canyon: too beautiful and elegant to be explained, but too beautiful and elegant not to try to explain it. The more I watched these little wonders learn to speak, the more I wanted to know "how do they do it?"

I began reading countless studies, and working on my own through the guidance of Dr. Merriman at Kent State University. We ran studies on how preschoolers generalize grammar, how young toddlers begin to categorize names of objects, and how infants and young children develop the vast amount of phonetics needed for the English language. But none of these really answered the true question of my heart "HOW do humans learn to speak?" It takes so much coordination between the tongue, muscles in the mouth, when breath is held and released, and when vocalization occurs in any given phoneme. These are things that cannot be mimicked, yet we learn them, perfect them, and use them every day without thinking about it. We learn new words and put them into a category unaware that we are doing so. We make up sentences that have never been spoken.

It was my quest to answer the big "how" question that brought me to a study conducted at Ohio State University on using sign language with infants. I'd read about several studies on sign language for deaf infants and children, how they spontaneously will begin signing and creating a method of communication if none is given to them from their culture, and how infants of deaf parents will begin to babble phonemes of ASL using their hands. But this study was different. This was about using sign language in a hearing community of infants to understand their needs before they can verbalize. I do not remember the name of the professors conducting the research, nor do I remember a lot about their particular paper published. But I do remember that it lit a fire under me. Immediately after reading the paper, I implemented an ASL componant to my lesson plans at the nursery school. I turned my classroom into my own little language lab. I had the full support of every parent in my classroom, who were eager to also learn the signs and try to communicate with their children.

Teaching signs to an older infant was extremely easy, I found. Saying the word as I was signing led to a quick association between the sign and the meaning of the word. Within a couple of months, my preverbal infants were telling me they wanted "more" to eat, they wanted their "milk" cup, and if they were "hurt." After a while, they were even able to tell me that they wanted me to read the book about "rockets" or that they had dropped their "bear" and couldn't reach it! I was in astonishment as these older infants communicated with their hands. As months passed, we noticed they began putting signs together to communicate in sentences of signs. They began speaking at a much earlier age, and the infants that were introduced to my program early in infancy began showing understanding of language as well as complex problem solving much earlier than we expected. This was not a scientific study, but an exercise in observation.

When I had my own child, there was no question that I would begin signing with him at an early age. Signing with a young infant takes work and patience, as they will not produce signs for months to come. But being persistant has paid off. After teaching Daryl a few signs that he can use, and introducing sign language to Jonah in context, Jonah finally began paying attention to our hands. I noticed about a month ago that Jonah would flit his eyes back and forth between my face and my hands while I was speaking and signing to him. Recently, I have noticed that for events that I always give a sign for, such as a diaper change, he looks at the level that I always make the sign, as if he is anticipating the sign. He is showing signs of understanding the sign for "nurse" as he kicks his feet in excitement and begins to root with his mouth when I ask him "do you want to nurse?" while making the sign.

It is my hope that soon this understanding will become the ability to produce signs and communicate his needs as well as his desires. Our ultimate goal is to use language to create an awareness of the world around him, and to help him better understand his surroundings. We are hoping that it will create an empathetic individual with the means to communicate and problem solve efficiently. But for these early months, I am still content to take wonder at my little baby and the thought of all that his little brain is processing every second of every day.

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