Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Story Illustrates an Important Advantage of Signing

One of my favorite personal Baby Signs® stories involves my son, Kai (who you see in the photo below with me way back in 1987 doing his sign for airplane--an indication of how long I've been involved with signing). We were in the mall; he was 12 months old and in his stroller as we passed by store after store. Suddenly, he turned around in his stroller, smiled, and did his sign for “crocodile” – clapping his palms together like the jaws of a crocodile. “You see a crocodile—in the mall?” I asked, looking around in vain for such a critter. I knew to trust him, though. He clearly was trying to tell me about something he saw. I let him out of his stroller, and he immediately toddled over to the window of the store we had just passed—a men’s store with racks of men’s shirts in the window. Where was the crocodile? You probably guessed it! The IZOD insignia on the shirts!

I’m telling this story to illustrate a point about why signing with babies speeds up language development.

Imagine yourself in my situation. Do you think I just calmly said “Oh yeah, that’s a crocodile,” plopped him back in his stroller, and went on my merry way? No! I was flabbergasted that he had seen those crocs from his stroller and thrilled that he wanted to tell me about them—so I excitedly flooded him with words like: “You’re right! Those are crocodiles! There are lots of crocodiles! They’re like the crocodile in your book! You are the smartest baby in the world!” (Probably not my exact words, but close enough.)

His use of the sign resulted in him hearing lots and lots of words that he otherwise would not have heard—and who picked the topic? He did! Think about it. We all pay more attention to things we are personally interested in, and that’s true for babies and toddlers, too. When we join them in attending to what they are focused on, chances are much greater that they will listen closely to what we’re saying—and learn! In fact, we know from research done at Emory University that this is true for verbal words even when signs are not involved: children are more likely to learn words they hear while the parent is talking about something the children have chosen.

The magic thing about signs is that it enables babies to pick the topic so much earlier than if they had to wait for words to come along. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that signing gives babies such a lovely jumpstart in learning to understand words and to talk.

Happy Signing

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Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
Co-Founder, Baby Signs Program
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