by: Michael Kabel
Your baby may be trying to tell you something.
New research shows that children are capable of learning the fundamentals of sign language even before they begin talking. While some babies begin speaking before reaching their first birthday, many are unable to form words because their muscles lack the strength to make words with their mouths. Yet their hands have been developing gross motor skills at a much faster pace. The end result is that children can often sign their wants and needs much earlier than they can articulate them.
For parents, it's an opportunity to finally solve the illusive mysteries of baby's crying and screaming. For researchers, it offers insight into one of the last frontiers of psychology: the mind of the very young.
Parents and children as young as five months old take simple sign language courses developed from American Sign Language fundamentals. While experts have observed children as young as seven or eight months old effectively using ASL speech, while children usually cannot communicate with vocal speech methods before the age of 24 months.
Learning sign langue may also help curb the fury of the "terrible twos," as children conversant in ASL principles are better equipped to express their frustrations and needs to their parents.
Still, at least one expert says the key to effectively building a sign language rapport between parents and babies rests with the parents themselves. Sticking to a training regimen, she says, is crucial to instilling in parent and child alike a working means of communication.
"The process requires work," she explains.
Other sign language and child experts are quick to point out that the training should only remain as intensive as the parents want to make it. While some may want to build a complete working vocabulary, a more casual approach – simply learning words for "hungry," "tired," "ball," "bottle," and "sleep" - can often build communicative bridges between child and parent.
While conventional ASL has existed since the 1880s, the concept of teaching sign language to children has come about only in the last few years. Many schools have cropped up nationwide offering to teach babies and toddlers the basics of sign language, while day care centers and Montessori academies are incorporating an ASL unit into their instruction plans.
As the children grow, sign language often reinforces verbal literacy skills and can even be of help in learning the distinctions between homonyms, or similar-sounding words. For example, the ASL symbols for "threw" and "through" are quite different, and organizing the words with the sound can often help a young student learn the difference.
With the coming of speech, however, many children choose to leave the ASL words behind.
"Still," one expert says, "there's no denying its use before the children become comfortable with simply speaking their words."
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