October 15, 2019

Nonverbal Baby Talk a Sign of the Times

While other infants and young toddlers let out a howl when they are hungry, 14-month-old Emmet Weisz simply brings his hands together at the heel and rotates the right hand over the left, making the hand-sign for his favorite food: cheese.

“He has a great love for dairy,” laughed Emmet’s mother, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, who lives in the Pico-Robertson area. “If I say it’s time for lunch or let’s go to the kitchen, he’ll sign ‘cheese.'”

Rather than waiting for her son to express himself verbally, Orenstein, like many Southland parents, decided to enhance Emmet’s language skills by taking baby sign-language classes. Teaching sign-language to preverbal hearing babies is one of the fastest-growing parenting trends in North America.

“Imagine that your baby is crying at night and you have to play the guessing game as to what the baby wants. Baby sign-language makes it so easy because they tell you exactly what they want,” said Etel Leit, founder of SignShine, a West L.A.-based company that offers American Sign-Language (ASL) workshops and classes for parents, caregivers and children.

Teaching her 19-month-old daughter, Zoë, more than 100 signs has quelled those late-night brainteasers. In addition, sign-language has become a unifying language in the family’s bilingual household.

While signing has only recently become popular for nondisabled children, it has been used to help special-needs children communicate for decades. At the UCLA Intervention Program, a program for infants and toddlers with a variety of disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, sign-language is one of the typical means used to help children with language delays.

The recent popularity of baby signing is a comfort to many families with special needs children.

“It’s nice that [signing] has become mainstream,” said executive director Kit Kehr. “It helps the families in our program feel like it’s not an odd thing they’re doing.”

Research shows that sign-language reduces frustration between parent and child, helps accelerate verbal language development, can serve as a bridge between English and non-English speakers and may increase a child’s IQ.

Not everyone agrees. Critics of the trend feel that teaching babies to sign is a symptom of an overachieving parent. Other naysayers fear that parents will depend on sign-language and abandon the spoken word.

“I don’t think parents should ever use [sign-language] as a substitute for speech or as a way to teach children to develop language faster,” said Deena Bernstein, professor and chairman of the department of speech-language-hearing sciences at City University of New York’s Lehman College in the Bronx. “I think children are born to talk and some believe they are pre-programmed physiologically to do so.”

Leit, however, has seen the benefits firsthand.

In her Sign, Sing and Play classes, parents and/or caregivers and their children attend six one-hour classes consisting of interactive games, music, singing and storytelling. By the end of the series, parents and children are exposed to over 100 signs focusing on topics like mealtime, bathtime, clothing, bedtime, animals, family, colors, emotions and playtime. Students take home supplementary materials and are told to practice throughout the week.

Babies are ready to learn sign-language when they can point and clap their hands. Leit suggests that anywhere from 4 to 6 months is a good starting point and she claims that it’s never too late to learn.

Children who already speak can also benefit from sign-language because it enhances their vocabulary. At age 2, babies who sign have more than a three-month advantage over nonsigners in the area of speech; at age 3 they often speak at a nearly 4-year-old level, according to a National Institute of Health study conducted by Dr. Linda Acredolo, a professor of psychology at UC Davis, and Dr. Susan Goodwyn, professor of psychology at California State University Stanislaus.

West Hollywood resident Revital Goodman signs with her 2-1/2-year-old daughter, Abigail.

“We use it when we’re at the park,” Goodman said. “Instead of yelling for her to come here or to come eat, we sign.”

Abigail, who is already bilingual, constantly asks her mother how to sign new words.

Dimple Tyler, a stay-at-home mom from Los Angeles, believes in the benefits of signing. After several classes, her 8-month-old son, Jonathan, is showing his first indication of interest in sign-language: a smile.

“Watching me sign is a game to him and it engages him,” Tyler said. “I can tell he’s learning the concept.”

Amusement is often the first stage for babies learning sign-language. Recognition, imitation and the baby’s first sign follow.

As a language teacher, Leit feels that her Judaism and Israeli roots have influenced her outlook on communication.

“People who know more languages are more open-minded,” she said. “Instead of looking at a deaf person or a person who speaks Hebrew or Farsi and saying how different they are, we realize how similar we all are.”

For information on SignShine classes, call (310) 613-3900 or visit www.babysignshine.com