Baby Sign Language: Learning about Baby Says More™

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I am excited to present this article written by Michelle Lerner, Bilingual Speech Language Pathologist and owner of Baby Says More. Michelle is not only a colleague and friend of mine, but a woman that I respect because of her hard work and dedication to helping parents and caregivers teach their babies to communicate better. I know you will find this information as valuable as I have. Check out Michelle’s website, Baby Says More and her programs that she has developed that are available through her website. Thank you Michelle for sharing this information!

 

Firstly, baby sign is not a language, but rather a method of basic communication that allows babies to express wants and needs to their parents, as well as comment about their immediate environments or emotional states, and to engage in the social behavior of manners. It is not a sophisticated language with a complex grammatical system, such as any of the approximate 300 sign languages spoken in various deaf communities around the world, including American Sign Language, British Sign Language, Argentine Sign Language and Nicaraguan Sign Language to name a few. Contrary to popular belief, there is no universal sign language!

Baby sign is a strategy that teaches babies about communicative function, or the purpose of communication and how to communicate, before they are anatomically and physiologically ready to verbalize. Babies need to develop their fine motor skills in their articulators (i.e. tongue, lips, velum, vocal tract, larynx and vocal cords) before they are able to speak. On the contrary, babies have the gross motor skills, hand eye coordination and cognitive memory capacity for language required to communicate via gestures as of about 6 months of age. Research suggests that babies who are consistently exposed to sign can begin using signs to effectively communicate by 8 to 9 months of age.

Many parents have presented the concern that introducing baby sign to their little ones might delay the onset of spoken language as he/she would “not need” to speak. Baby sign will not delay spoken language acquisition, but rather enhance it. In fact, hearing babies of deaf parents are able to communicate significantly earlier than those of hearing parents via sign language (fluent sign language, that is), yet still develop spoken language according to typical developmental milestones.

There are numerous benefits to teaching your baby to use signs before the onset of verbal language, including:
Multi Ethnic People Holding The Word Benefits

– Reduced baby distress due to his/her ability to communicate,
– Reduced crying and tantrums,
– Mothers who are more “tuned in” due to increased self-confidence,
– Improved parent-child communication,
– Strengthened parent-child bond,
– Increased joint attention and engagement in two-way conversation,
– Advanced comprehension,
– Larger expressive and receptive oral language vocabularies,
– Enhanced literacy if signing is paired with reading,
– And, even the potential for a later IQ advantage (* however, this needs more definitive research).

Learning to pair a symbolic gesture, or sign, with a referent, or item that the sign refers to, facilitates later vocabulary acquisition. Furthermore, using “home signs” or “improvised signs,” which are signs invented by your baby, incites creativity. Therefore, baby signing sets a solid foundation for later verbal language development, but should be abandoned once speech emerges.

Again, baby sign is not a language, so if you want your baby to be a bilingual speaker/signer, then it is imperative that you expose him/her to a deaf community or to a fluent signer.

There are a plethora of baby sign products that exist today in English primarily, none of which have been empirically tested for efficacy. Flash cards employ drills and speed as an instructional method, which is quite contradictory to what we currently know about language intervention; that is, language is acquired in context in a natural environment. Furthermore, American Sign Language (ASL) has been used as a marketing tool for baby sign, but parents should use signs from whichever sign system that they would like or use improvised signs. It is not only okay to create your own signs, but it is recommended. Often babies will use their own gestures to communicate their wants and needs, such as putting their hands above their heads to be picked up or rubbing their eyes when it is time for bed. These gestures are not coincidental and are readily available tools for communication.

Now, let me introduce myself. My name is Michelle Lerner and I am the founder of Baby Says More™. I show parents like you how to teach their infants baby sign within their natural language environments. I received a Bachelor of Arts in the Speech-Language-Hearing-Sciences at Hofstra University and a Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology from Teacher’s College Columbia University. I hold the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) Certificate of Clinical Competence for Speech and Language Pathologists, the New York State License to practice Speech and Language Pathology and the Professional Certificate for Teachers of Students with Speech and Language Disabilities with a Bilingual Extension in English/Spanish from the Bilingual Institute at Teacher’s College Columbia University.

michelle-lernerI worked in the NYC Department of Education as a speech and language pathologist for students of all ages with various diagnoses. My specialty was, and still remains, Augmentative and Alternative Communication Systems (AAC); that is, any alternate mode of communication that either substitutes for or facilitates verbal communication, i.e. signs, gestures, communication books and voice output technologies. I worked predominantly with high school-aged students with significant Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In case you are unaware, individuals with ASD often require more than one mode of language input, i.e. aural (verbal) and visual (sign), to help improve overall comprehension.

Outside of the office, approximately 3 months after my first niece was born, I decided to start introducing her to manual communication. Specifically, I taught her parents to pair speaking with routine baby signs within her natural language environment. I was able to work with them constantly as I lived a block away in NYC. My niece started her signing journey through observation, then approximation, and ultimately, at about 9 months of age, she could sign her basic wants/needs and use the politeness phrases (i.e. “please” and “thank you”). In fact, my interaction with my little niece consisted of so much dancing and so much signing, that when she ultimately started calling her family members’ by name, not long after her first birthday, my “name” included a dance move and the sign for “dance”…

I currently live in Barcelona, Spain, where I have been afforded the opportunity to both fine-tune my multilingual tongue, as well as immerse myself within a technological start-up community. I started Baby Says More™ as a means to combine my passions for language, children and traveling. Moreover, I have learnt throughout my travels that many cultures are not exposed to manual communication strategies, yet parents are incredibly eager to learn!

Baby Says More™ is an online resource for parents who want to learn to communicate with their babies via baby sign before the onset of spoken language. The unique and innovative online course is available in both English and Spanish. It allows parents to learn independently at home in their very little free time. The course is comprised of 4 modules: (1) An Overview of Child Language Development, (2) How to adapt your baby’s “Routine” to include Baby Sign, (3) How to teach your baby to sign, and (4) How to expand upon your baby’s sign repertoire, including the use of short sentences and manner terms. Baby Says More™ challenges the idea that baby sign needs to be taught with signs borrowed from American Sign Language, as well as that baby sign can be taught to a baby in an unfamiliar, classroom setting. In fact, baby sign is most effectively taught within the home by caretakers; that is, within the baby’s natural language learning environment. That being said, there are many babies who spend a great deal of time in daycare; therefore, the Baby Sign Online Course by Baby Says More™ is very much applicable to a daycare setting in which it is utilized as an educational resource for caretakers and teachers who can apply the teaching methodology day in and day out to help parents in supporting their children’s preverbal language development.

Remember, teaching your baby to sign takes time and commitment! If you would like to read up on some research regarding how using baby sign enhances later verbal language skills, please take a look at the following links:

Acredolo, L.P. and Goodwyn, S.W., The Longterm Impact of Symbolic Gesturing During Infancy on IQ at Age 8, International Conference on Infant Studies (July 18, 2000: Brighton, UK)
http://pursuitofresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Longterm-Impact-of-Symbolic-Gesturing.pdf

Da Fonte, M.A. and Lloyd, L.L.. (2007, September). The Acquisition of Manual Signs. Paper presented at the 2007 Clinical AAC Research Conference, Lexington, KY.
http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.501.8309&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Goodwyn, S.W., Acredolo, L.P. and Brown, C.A. (2000). Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24, 81-103.
http://faculty.washington.edu/sommej/Goodwynetal2000.pdf

Vallotton, C.D. and Ayoub, C.C. (August 2010). Symbols Build Communication and Thought: The Role of Gestures and Words in the Development of Engagement Skills and Social-Emotional Concepts During Toddlerhood, Social Development 19:3, 601-626. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9507.2009.00549.x/abstract

 

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