Every morning when Julie Zigo drops her 5-year-old daughter, Liliana, at day care, she stops outside the girl's window and signs "I love you." And her daughter signs it back. This would be an expected exchange if either Liliana or Julie were deaf. But neither is. Instead, they're part of a growing number of parents and children who have begun using American Sign Language (ASL) — often before the child can even speak — as part of their daily communication. Some day-care centers even incorporate sign language into their daily curriculums.
"I'm amazed at how much they can learn so young," says Zigo, a music therapist from Arlington, Mass. "It has a lot of potential for people."
The potential, researchers say, is not only to understand the cranky, whiny 13-month-old who simply doesn't know how to tell you she's hungry, but also to raise children who come to language earlier, score higher on learning tests and have an easier time learning to read and write. In fact, more than 10 years of studies show that hearing children taught sign language as babies or in early elementary school have much larger English vocabularies.
"Signing is simply a richer way of expressing the English language," says Marilyn Daniels, Ph.D., an associate professor of speech communications at Pennsylvania State University and the author of "Dancing With Words: Signing For Hearing Children's Literacy."(Bergin & Garvey, 2001). "Because most of the signs look exactly like the reference, it really reveals the meaning of the word."
The trend is coming into its own now, Dr. Daniels says, because it's only in recent years that ASL has been recognized as a complete language in and of itself. In fact, it's the third most used language in the United States, after English and Spanish. More than 15 million hearing and deaf people use it.
Some proponents of signing advocate creating your own personal language with your child, an approach Dr. Daniels disapproves of. "If you use ASL, then the child is actually learning the vocabulary of a real, legitimate language," she says, "and when that child goes to school, or changes day-care centers, they're exposed to the same language." Also, many high schools and colleges now accept ASL as a foreign language.
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Julie Zigo didn't set out to teach her daughter to sign hoping the girl would turn out brighter. She didn't even deliberately teach her to sign. But because Julie uses ASL in her work with special-needs children, she began automatically and unconsciously signing to Liliana after adopting her from China when she was 9 months old.
Julie knew Liliana had no English language to use as a reference at an age when many children start stringing consonants and vowels together in an endless stream of babble. So when Julie fed Liliana lunch, for instance, she'd give her some food and then ask, "Do you want more?" making the sign for more. One day when Liliana was about 10 months, Julie fed her some squash and asked, but didn't sign, "Do you want more?" And Liliana brought her hands together and patted one on top of the other in an approximation of the sign for "more." Julie thought it was a coincidence. She gave her another spoonful of squash then asked again, verbally, "Do you want more?" And again, Liliana signed for "more."
Julie was surprised. "I knew then she'd taken in my modeling of the signs for "more" and "all done," and she could use them to communicate with me. Even though I should have known it could happen, I was just surprised we now had this additional way to communicate."
Even after Liliana began to talk — at one year – Julie and her husband continued signing with her. Today, at 5, Liliana talks perfectly, but still uses sign with her parents. "I use it to cue her if we're in a place and I don't want to call out to her, or we're too far away for me to say, "stop," or "come here." It's really easy to do that with sign language," says Julie. And, of course, it comes in handy if Julie's on the phone, when Liliana, like many other children her age, is most apt to interrupt.
Julie doesn't know if the early signing will lead to improved reading and writing skills with Liliana, she says; the little girl hasn't started kindergarten yet. But if Liliana is anything like the dozens of children Dr. Daniels has studied, she probably will be at the top of her class.
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Dr. Daniels first became interested in sign language when her own daughter used it while working with autistic children. "It was so beautiful. It looks like dance," she says, and hence came the title of her book. But the idea that sign language could make a difference in hearing children's intellectual and academic development came later, when several graduate students she taught, who served as interpreters at parent/teacher meetings for deaf parents, wondered why the hearing children of deaf parents seemed to do so well with reading and writing.
"They figured that since they were coming out of language-deprived homes, they would be struggling with these areas, not excelling in them," Dr. Daniels says.
So Dr. Daniels designed a study with 16 hearing children who knew ASL; all but one of the children had deaf parents. She found they scored 17 percent higher on the tests she administered than hearing children who didn't know ASL. Subsequent research studies with larger groups have found the same results.
Why? One reason may be that sign language increases overall brain activity, stimulating the formation of more synapses, or connections, among brain cells. Studies with PET scans, for instance, show that children's brains process signing both as a language, in the left side of the brain, and as image and movement, in the right side of the brain. When the sign language is stored, it's stored in the left side of the brain, but separate from the child's native language. "So it gives any child two places to search and recall," Dr. Daniels says. They're also being exposed to three different inputs: visual, observing the gesture and facial expressions of the parent; audible, hearing the word spoken along with the sign; and physical, feeling the gestures used.
And, as a growing body of research on early brain development shows, the more stimulation a child is exposed to at an early age, the more intelligent he or she is likely to be.
But just how can children who can't even walk learn how to make such a variety of movements with their hands to communicate their needs?
"Motor and visual development are far ahead of vocal development," Dr. Daniels says. "From their first day of life, we know that babies are watching and looking with this visual cortex ahead of anything else. And babies have a great need to communicate."
That's what Diane, a young mother from Blacksburg, Va., discovered when her oldest son, Nathan, was just a year old. (Their names were changed to protect their privacy.) She was searching for a way to curb his whining and fussiness when she stumbled onto information about sign language.
"When I saw it, I said, 'This is it!' "She just knew, Diane said, that if she could communicate with Nathan, the whining would stop.
"I loved it because I could choose what I wanted to teach him to say," she says.
The first word she taught him: please.
She started with "please" because it could be used for so many things. "And it's a nice word. It makes me feel good about him being so polite," she says. "Please" was quickly followed by "more," "thank you," and "bath."
It took Nathan almost a week to learn "please." Every day at mealtime, Diane took his hand and made the sign for the word before giving him a bit to eat. After a week, one night while the family was eating ice cream, Diane looked over to see Nathan making a small, circular motion, the sign for "please." From then on, he picked up words quickly.
Signing, like learning any foreign language, is much easier for young children, whose language centers are still developing, Dr. Daniels says.
For instance, consider the word "up," one of the first words many parents teach their babies. The sign for "up" is an obvious one: It's made with the extended index finger pointing up, the palm facing forward, and the hand moving upward a short distance.
The need for signing doesn't disappear when children begin speaking, however. In fact, studies show most hearing children who sign begin talking earlier than those who don't sign. For instance, just think about the difficulty you've had interpreting a toddler's words, where "buh" could mean anything, from bottle, to baby, to bath. Add signing to the equation, and you'd know exactly what he or she wanted.
"It helps a parent not feel so tired — having to say the same thing over and over again," says Julie Zigo.
- Joseph Garcia, an early childhood education researcher in Bellingham, Wash., has produced paperbacks, video kits, and reference guides as part of a series, "Sign with Your Baby" (Northlight Communications, 1999).
- University of California professors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn wrote "Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk," based on the results of their studies with hearing families. Dr. Daniels points out, however, that this book encourages parents to invent their own language, rather than use ASL.
- A good, basic dictionary to help parents learn to sign is Webster's American Sign Language Dictionary, by Elaine Costello, Ph.D. (Random House).
- "Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy." (Bergin & Garvey, 2001). Marilyn Daniels, Ph.D.
- Web sites include: