The majority of children grow up speaking the language their parents speak, but what about when their parents don’t “speak” a language? The first language of children of deaf adults (CODAs) is sign language, and they start using it before they even have the skills to verbally speak their first word.
Leonard Allen, a hearing man from Boston, grew up with two deaf parents and naturally learned sign language as his first language.
“My parents have told me when I was a baby they remember me lying in my crib signing all sorts of things that I picked up on,” said Allen. “Despite not being able to hear me, being able to understand my simple signals helped them understand what was going on with me when I was little.”
However, it’s not just CODAs who have the ability to use sign language in infancy as a method of communication. Children of hearing adults can just as easily learn the unspoken language before they can talk.
Andrea Fixwell, a trained American Sign Language instructor, used these methods with her son when he was a baby.
“I realized that by signing with him I could actually communicate with him earlier, and it sort of opened his whole world,” Fixwell told the Park Slope Patch in 2011. “It alleviates a lot of frustration because the child is able to express what they want and the parent can understand them. Everybody is happy because their needs are being met.”
Fixwell later founded Sign-a-Song, a company offering baby sign language classes in the Brooklyn, New York area. Parents and their young children can learn simple signs, such as “please”, “thank you” and “more”, accompanied by music to keep the youngsters interested.
“The parents were learning something, but it wasn’t as exciting and fun,” said Fixwell. “That’s one reason why we use music. The other thing is that … songs are naturally repetitive. And so the signs are used over and over again.”
By the age of 18 months, typically babies can only verbalize about ten simple words, however by eight months a baby can be learning to communicate through sign language, according to Mayo Clinic.
Joseph Garcia, the author of Sign With You Baby: How to Communicate With Infants Before They Can Speak, the best-selling book and video series, is an American Sign Language and early child development researcher who knows this to be true. In his research, he found that hearing children of deaf adults were able to express their needs much easier than children who could not communicate with sign language.
“Kids understand so much more than they are able to say,” said Sarah Pimentel, a mother who attends classes at Sign-a-Song with her daughter. “It just takes time for the syllables to develop and differentiate. But they start trying to communicate really early, it’s just you can’t always tell what they are trying to say. With the sign language it’s clear.”
Not only is “baby sign” advantageous for communication, it also helps in motor skill strengthening, brain development, and parent-child bonding.
The late Dr. Elizabeth Bates was a leading researcher of the field and the director of the Center for Research and Language at the University of California at San Diego.
“It has to do with how easily one can imitate and reproduce something with a great big fat hand as opposed to the mini, delicate hundreds of muscles that control the tongue,” Dr. Bates told The New York Times in 2004. ”It is well established that the more you talk to babies — and you gesture naturally as you do that — the higher their vocabularies. Something that can increase your child’s vocabulary will increase I.Q.”
Dr. Bates also noted that studies in neuroscience have shown the areas of the brain responsible for speech and those controlling hand movement overlap quite a bit.
Aside from the various educational, communicational and bonding elements teaching babies sign language can provide, it’s also just simply enjoyable for the children. Fern Ring, another parent who uses sign language with her child, firmly believes this.
“Children at this age are alive, like a whole being, so [signing with them is] really honoring where they’re at,” she said. “If you honor where they are and take joy in where they are, they just become more of what they are. It’s just like the song ‘The More We are Together the Happier We’ll Be’. That’s kind of like the whole theory.”
Learning American Sign Language can also be helpful for children later in life. As a hearing person, knowing sign language is a unique skill and could potentially be applied volunteering with the deaf, working as a translator, teaching ASL, or a number of other careers.
“I’d rather teach them an actual language that they can use beyond babyhood,” said Fixwell. “These are not just made up gestures, this is an actual language with its own linguistics and its own semantics.”