Toddlers Find Their Voice in Sign Language Parents of pre-verbal toddlers are finding a new communication tool: Sign language. With some studies showing improved literacy as a result, teaching babies and toddlers how to sign has become a growth industry.

Toddlers Find Their Voice in Sign Language

Toddlers Find Their Voice in Sign Language

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Parents of pre-verbal toddlers are finding a new communication tool: Sign language. With some studies showing improved literacy as a result, teaching babies and toddlers how to sign has become a growth industry.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Those of you who woke up early to care for a crying baby know that it is hard to know just what the child wants. Toddlers usually do not have the tools to explain their needs, so some parents are using sign language to close that communication gap. Shia Levitt reports.

SHIA LEVITT reporting:

Unidentified Woman: We have watermelon, do you remember?

LEVITT: Amid plastic replicas of bananas, apples and grapes, a handful of parents and their babies are gathered for a weekly playgroup. It's a baby sign language class. Using toy props, instructors Eva Ung(ph) and Jennifer Chang(ph) are going over the signs for basic baby foods, fruits, vegetables, cereal and raisins.

Unidentified Woman: So you eat raisins, you take your (unintelligible), it's the same motion.

LEVITT: After several classes, parent Karina Douglas(ph) says her 11-month old daughter, Claire(ph), can now sign when she wants more of something, like food. For milk she opens and closes her fist, as if she were milking a cow.

Ms. KARINA DOUGLAS (Parent): That really helps out to know what your child wants before she would be able to speak it. Right now, she speaks no words, but she does four signs.

JENNIFER CHANG (Sign Language Teacher): The whole idea is that babies know what they want from day one.

LEVITT: Jennifer Chang often teaches four to five baby sign language classes a week.

Ms. CHANG: They cry and they cry and they cry because they want milk, because they want mommy. But they don't have any other tools aside from that until maybe about 12 months; that's usually when the first word comes in. Physically, to be able to move your hands and to gesture comes a lot sooner than the mouth movements do.

LEVITT: Babies can often learn signs as early as seven months old, says Pennsylvania State University Professor Marilyn Daniels. Daniels has been researching sign language in hearing populations for more than 15 years.

Ms. MARILYN DANIELS (Professor of Speech Communication, Pennsylvania State University): When the child goes for search and recall to find the name of something to know what it's called, the child has two places to look. They can look in their English or they can look in their American Sign Language.

LEVITT: Special-needs educators have been using sign language for decades with autistic children and kids with Down's syndrome and other communication problems. ASL is also used to help teach English as a second language to kids. But the educational benefits from early signing, Daniels says, are another reason why parents start kids signing so young.

Ms. DANIELS: The children who have done this end up being able to have really very large vocabularies, can generally read much earlier than other children, and particularly when the parents continue doing it, they are much more ready for pre-school and kindergarten.

LEVITT: But some scholars say the benefits of baby signing are not that unique among the myriad of early childhood enrichment offerings. John Hagan heads the Society for Research and Child Development at the University of Michigan.

Professor JOHN HAGAN (Director, Society for Research and Child Development, University of Michigan): It's one of many things that are known to be generally good and positive. They're certainly not going to hurt. They may give an advantage.

LEVITT: Advantage or not, business is thriving. One big brand name in baby signing products, Sign to Me, reports the number of instructors who teach their method nationally has grown five-fold in the last year. Resign, one of the largest manufactures of baby signing videos, says they have seen a 400 percent increase in sales in the last few years.

(Soundbite of Toddler Sign Language Class)

Still, not every parent can afford classes like this one in San Jose. It costs about $120 for a six-week session. A handful of programs across the country are offering free or reduced cost classes so that low-income families can participate. Chang and Ung say they're hoping soon to develop classes for daycare providers.

For NPR News, I'm Shia Levitt.

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