Last Updated 06 Mar 2017

Signs of Understanding

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For the past centuries, deaf people or those hard of hearing were the only ones who used sign language to communicate their thoughts and feelings. People with perfect hearing like Joseph Garcia, a certified interpreter, were mostly interested in learning this kind of language only in reference to the hearing handicapped. However, with his involvement in the deaf community, he soon noticed that babies born of deaf parents tended to develop speaking language abilities faster than children with parents who had no handicap did.

Puzzled by his observations, he decided to pursue the topic for his 1986 graduate thesis. With the cooperation of 17 families, he found out that consistently exposing babies to signs can make them learn these gestures by their eight or ninth month. Since then, Garcia has been a principal researcher for 109 studies and has developed programs, books and other materials that implement his findings. (“About Joseph Garcia” par. 1-3)

During the same period, Linda Acredolo also realized that there is a possible connection between signs and early child development as her daughter’s reaction to the fish while they were in her pediatrician’s office intrigued her. Her child, Katie, went to the fish tank and started to blow towards the fish. When they went home, Linda had to put Katie back in her crib and activate her fish mobile with a gentle blow. It was then that she remembered her daughter’s gestures in the doctor’s clinic.

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Armed with this realization, the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development granted Linda Acredolo and her partner, Susan Goodwyn, funding to conduct a study on the impact of symbolic gesturing on babies. (Haussman par. 4-5) The study was composed of 103 eleven-month old infants divided into two groups and reassessed on their 15th, 19th, 24th, 30th and 36th months. One control group knew nothing about using symbolic gestures while the other group of parents taught the infants how to use signs.  The results showed that the babies who learned symbolic gestures had a great advantage on the “vast majority of the language acquisition measures.” (Goodwyn, Acredolo & Brown 81)

The initial researches made by Garcia, Acredolo and Goodwyn are the basis of popular programs now being conducted that help babies acquire better speaking abilities and aid parents

in understanding their children. Learning to speak is a very important aspect of child development.  Here are some milestones that indicate the proper language development of children.

According to the Child Development Institute, at the age of 6 months, babies normally do vocalization with intonation and can respond to name call outs.  Infants, at this point, should also be able to turn their heads or eyes toward human voices even without being distracted with gestures and show appropriate reaction to friendly or angry tones. At 12 months of age, a baby can use fragments of a word or words with correct meaning and understand simple instructions with vocal or physical hints.

By this time, the one-year old baby can practice adding prefixes or suffixes to words and can be aware of the importance of social value in connection to speaking. By the time the child reaches 18 months of age, his or her vocabulary may contain 5 to 20 words composed mostly of nouns. These babies tend to make repetitions of a word or phrase with much jargon and emotional content.  It is also at this point when babies learn to follow basic commands. By the age of two, toddlers can typically name objects that are familiar to him and use this with about two prepositions like “in,” “on” or “under.”

The children also start using short sentences composed of 1 to 2 words and 2/3 of their babble are understandable. Their vocabulary expands to 150 to 300 words and can use at least 2 pronouns interchangeably (ex. You and I). Toddlers of this age have poor rhythm and fluency while voice and pitch control are not yet to be controlled. However, this stage is also where most parents begin to teach their children response to commands like “show me the light (your eyes, nose, etc.).”

By three years of age, children are expected to use the pronouns, “I,” “You” and “Me” properly and understand plurals and past tenses. The prepositions “in,” “on” and “under” are common in making three word sentences. Their vocabulary may expand from 900 to 1000 words and 90 percent of spoken words are already understandable. Three year olds can also comprehend basic queries regarding their surroundings can associate experiences with reason. Identification of own sex, name and age is also common to children of this age.

The basis for language development also has something to do with a baby’s physical growth. According to a research made by Melanie Canault and her colleagues in 2007, children realize how to control their respiration and its phonation first by learning how to open and close the vocal tract in continuous rhythm during vocal emissions. However, productions of these sounds are still under the influence of strong physiological constrains.

Although many children are ready to learn verbalization before 12 months old, most have yet to acquire the fine motor skill they need to create words using their mouths. (Taylor B1) Since most parents believe that their babies’ language development starts with the first words uttered by infants, it will seem that there is little way to help babies communicate their needs until an appropriate physical development stage.

However, researchers traced that verbal language begins with comprehension of “arbitrary symbols to stand for real-world phenomena.” (Goodwyn, Acredolo & Brown 82) Baby sign language, according to numerous researches, can hasten a child’s achievement of the milestones presented above.

Many studies have sprung from the original researches done by Garcia, Acredolo and Goodwyn.  In 1997, Kimberlee Whaley, coordinator of the laboratory school and an associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State's College of Human Ecology, and her colleagues in Ohio State's A. Sophie Rogers Infant-Toddler Laboratory School started a program to help the babies in their care communicate their thoughts through sign language. Teachers were looking for some way to teach their conflicting one-year old students another physical gesture that would indicate their displeasure instead of pushing each other.

They realized that if sign language can help children with special disabilities communicate, it can also aid with babies who have yet to learn speech. One of the teachers was already knowledgeable in American Sign Language and taught the other caregivers on how to use certain gestures for their small experiment. The signs were used while the teachers spoke to the children so that the babies will learn it naturally.

The results show that the first words that children learn to verbalize are those that can be associated to the signs and that as these babies learned to use speech more fluently, their use of signs diminish. It also lessened the frustration of both children and teachers because instead of crying the very young students are able to gesture what they need lessening the stress in the environment.  Parents also learned the sign languages and pleased by it.

Another research report made by Jana M. Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow strengthens the contention that gestures can hasten language development when they studied ten children who were learning to develop their abilities from single words to two-word combinations. They found out that the children first learned to make gestures before they could verbally pronounce the words.

Another fact they established was that those who learned to make a gesture and associate it to word combinations first (example: pointing to a bird and saying the word “nap”) were the ones who initially verbalized two-word combinations like bird nap.  They concluded that gesture not only predates but also predicts changes in language meaning gesture can really pave the way to better language development.

Many speech pathologists and parents are attesting to the benefits of baby sign language on families with normal hearing children. Babies who learn symbolic gestures are able to speak earlier than non-signers (as attested by the researches mentioned), experience less frustration (evidenced usually by less crying), develop larger vocabularies, become better readers and develop IQs that are at least 10 to 12 points higher. (Ryan par. 5)

Although more research must be done to understand why babies who learn sign language develop verbal skills ahead of those who do not, the results of previous studies on the benefits of symbolic gestures already prove this phenomenon.

Tantrum spells usually erupt because of frustration.  Babies between 9 to 30 months old usually get frustrated because they are not able to communicate their need well.  Dr. Alan Greene (par. 1-3) explains that the ideas of these babies, “far outstrip their language skills… because large muscle coordination is learned before small muscle coordination – at about the same time kids want to express themselves.” Dr. Greene therefore recommends that parents teach their children sign language because hand and head movement is easier than manipulating the mouth and this form of language bridges the communication gap that results to less frustration.

Many researchers also claim that vocabulary is deeply enhanced by baby sign language and has positive effects on IQs. The basic theory is that because children are better understood, they gain more self-confidence in learning. A baby can learn a great deal when he feels important, which not only creates a “more confident person, but a more confident communicator. (Murkoff, 2003 cited in Haskin par.4)  Dr. Marilyn Daniels, associate professor of speech communication at Penn State’s Worthington Scranton Campus, believes that “knowing a second language, such as ASL (American Sign Language), also boosts self-esteem of the children.” (Fong, par. 2)

There are two ways to teach babies how to sign. The first way is based on the research of  Joseph Garcia who believes that ASL is the best tool to teach children how to sign. The second stream of learning is based on Acredolo’s research that uses any symbolic gestures that may be comfortable for both parents and their children. However, these schools of thought both believe in simplicity, consistency and the proper ages to start learning.

Parents or care givers can start teaching signs to babies as young as six to nine months old. It is expected that a month may pass before the child uses the sign on his own. Caregivers need to begin with simple words that are basic to the child.  Words like “eat,” “milk,” and “drink” are great for starters. People teaching the language must also be patient in giving only a few words to the babies to start with so as not to overwhelm the child. One of the most important rules in teaching symbolic gestures is that the teacher must have the baby’s complete attention. Distractions will inhibit learning anything at all.

The proper selection of words is also important.  Basic one-syllable words (preferably verbs and nouns) are the best choices. Some parents prefer to teach their children words that are more practical to their daily routines but there are those who choose words based on what generates more excitement for their child. Words like “bird,” “light,” and “foot” may be of more interest to a child and parents are given the freedom to choose their vocabulary starter.

It is also recommended that the teacher say the words aloud while doing the gesture.  This will hasten speech development.  If the gesture refers to an object, it would be advisable to show the child the object while doing its associated sign.  The teacher, for example, can verbalize and make the sign for “book” before reaching for it and repeat the same cycle while holding the book. Before putting the book back, the teacher must also do the cycle again. This will teach the child to connect the object to the sign. An additional tip to say the word clearly and slowly.

Consistency is the key to success. The person teaching the child to sign must take every chance to repeat the gesture when appropriate. The signs need to be part of a daily routine.  It takes a lot of repetition for the child to develop recognition.

It is also advisable that the people with whom the child communicates regularly know the signs and are coordinated in their efforts to avoid confusion. Many people attest that their families have fun having their own set of symbolic language because it fosters camaraderie among them and strengthens their bonds toward each other.

From the experiences of other parents and caregivers, it is noted that babies will not be able to completely copy a sign during his or her first attempts to show it.  Some children take months to learn the system but parents attest that it is worth it. It would be worthwhile to pay close attention to the baby’s hand movements at the start to know if he or she is already attempting to imitate the signs.  It may look uncoordinated at first but constant practice will refine the movements.

Once an infant learns the first gestures, he or she can be taught additional words.  It is not unusual for a child to learn about 40 to 60 words in sign language before he is physically prepared to talk. (Williams 2007)

Speech therapists have been using sign language to hasten verbal communication in children who seem to have delayed developments in this area. According to Jennifer Fusco, a speech pathologist, “When a child begins to use signs, and we respond to the signs as if they used a spoken word, the communication cycle begins.” It is therefore logical for some speech therapists to advocate baby sign language because it can aid in developing verbal abilities of children.

However, there are also those who oppose too much focus on the system citing that they know of a mother who decided “to focus entirely on teaching baby sign and to ignore vocalisations has actually retarded her son's spoken language development.” (Grove, Herman, Morgan ; Woll par. 10) These therapists also believe that too much concentration on baby sign language may hamper speech development because other means of communication are ignored.

Research has properly shown that baby sign language can be very helpful to a child’s language and intellectual development.  It boosts self-esteem and confidence in learning which aids in better IQ attainment.  Even if it does not achieve the things mentioned, it is still worth using as a tool for better communication because it fosters better family ties and less stressful moments for both parents and children.

Works Cited

“About Joseph Garcia.” 29 November 2007

Canault, Melanie, Rafael Laboissierre, Pascal Perrier and Rudolph Sock. “The Development of

Tongue Gestures at the Babbling Stage.” 29 November 2007

Child Development Institute. “Language Development In Children.” 29 November 2007


Fong, Vicki. “Sign Language Enriches Learning For Hearing Children.” 20 November 2001.

PennStateNews. 29 November 2007 ;;.

Fusco, Jennifer. “American Sign Language.” Speech 29 November 2007

Goodwyn, Susan, Linda Acredolo and Catherine Brown. “Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on

Early Language Development.” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 24.2 (2000):21-103.

Greene, Alan. “Baby Sign Language.” 30 July 1999. 29 November 2007


Grove, Nicola, Ros Herman, Gary Morgan and Bencie Woll. “Baby signing: the view from the

skeptics.” 29 November 2007

Haskin, Doug. “Advantages in Signing with Babies.” 10 November 2006. 29

November 2007 ;;.

Haussman, Penny. Baby Sign Language…Not Just For Babies Anymore! TinyTalking 29 November 2007

Iverson, Jana M. and Susan Goldin-Meadow. “Gesture Paves the Way for Language

Development.” Psychological Science. Vol. 16.5 (2005): 367-371.

Ryan, Diane. “Extraordinary Benefits Result when you Teach Sign Language To Your Hearing

Baby.” 29 November 2007 ;          signbaby.asp;.

Taylor, Lewis. “Say It In Signs.” The Register-Guard. 02 July 2007: B1.

Waley, Khimberlee. “Teaching Infants to Use Sign Language.” Newswise. 29 November 2007


Williams, MJ. “Teaching Babies Sign Language.” 29 November

2007 ;;.

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