Research suggests comprehension starts as early as six months, says expert

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Although they are adorable, small and loving little beings — babies tend to bring out the, well, unreasonable side of us all.

The loud, booming cries that seem to make their way out of such small humans are still a mystery — along with what that crying actually means. Are they hungry, wet or tired? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

A common ground is missing — as the baby has no means of telling the adult what they want.

Those seeking to achieve the common ground might look into the use of American Sign Language, also known as ASL. Some new parents have been using this gesture-generated language to understand their babies’ thoughts.1 copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copySome say sign language provides a common ground for pre-verbal babies and parents to communicate.

Photo by Veronica Pocza

“It changed my life, I can’t even imagine raising my kids without sign language now,” says Jen Talerico, mother of two.

“Babies deserve more credit,” she says.

“They can communicate and understand much earlier than they can talk, this can be a platform for them to express themselves before being verbally able.”

To learn, or not to learn 

Talerico has no previous personal connection to sign language.

“I don’t know anyone who is deaf, I just heard through word of mouth that signing with babies works,” she says.

She is now teaching her second child the basics of the language — things such as “milk or “more” to make everyday life easier.

With the help of her 3-year-old daughter, the family has been able to start the younger child signing “right from the beginning.” Talerico says that signing gets easier from child to child.

Talerico takes “baby sign” classes that teach the foundation level of ASL, with proper ASL signs for each word. The My Smart Hands classes, held by instructor Melody Hazelton, can also help parents learn a bit easier and provide tools like CDs, songs, and books to use at home.

“The weekly classes act as a reminder to continue using signs with your baby, as the repetition is key for progress,” Talerico says.

With the help of classes, Talerico’s children both began signing as early as six months. Her older daughter knew “over 200 signs when she was 18 months and could put them together in sentences,” she says.

Other parents choose to learn the basic concepts of signing with babies, and use the concept of simple association to make their own gestures to use in the home.

1 copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copyParent John Nairn acknowledges ASL as a beautiful and interesting language and says he would fully intend to further his children’s level in the language if they express interest.

Photo by Veronica Pocza 

John Nairn, father of three, and his wife Tamara, taught themselves some baby signs from a book.

“We only intend to use signing for their pre-verbal stage, so we loosely based our gestures around the real ones,” he says.

Nairn says the benefits outweigh the hassle of learning to sign with babies. He says the parent only has to learn the signs they wish to use and that it’s “so easy to teach yourself the signs. The only real effort in the process is remembering to continually use them around the house. You need to be repetitive or they [babies] will not catch on.”

One step forward, two steps back 

Nairn says he has heard the suggestion that learning and focusing on signing as the babies’ first form of communication could hinder a child’s ability to learn verbal speech.

Regardless, Nairn has used signing with all three of his children, and finds the tool actually aids the communication process altogether. His two older, now verbal, girls actually used signing to help them learn words.

Cass Foursha-Stevenson, PhD and assistant professor in the department of psychology at Mount Royal University, is currently studying the influences of language acquisition in children.

“Babies can learn multiple languages,” she says. “Speech and sign can be used together, so if they are actively engaging in both then one wouldn’t hinder the other.”

Foursha-Stevenson has a three-year-old, but did not use ASL to communicate with her baby early on.

“It does seem to have it’s benefits though, as research shows babies are able to comprehend things and associate as early as six months. But most babies don’t say their first word until they are one.”

She says this would provide a platform for the unable baby to express themselves.

For Nairn, it definitely has “bridged the gap” for the first few years of life, before parents are able to have a comprehensible conversation with their children.

“It eliminates frustration for them and for us, that’s for sure,” he says.
Nairn, along with other parents interviewed by the Calgary Journal, only intend to use the signs for “bridging the gap” of communication with their pre-verbal babies, rather than fully develop ASL into adulthood.

However, Nairn acknowledges ASL as a beautiful and interesting language and says he would fully intend to further his children’s level in the language if they express interest.

He says, “As for now, we are having fun with it, it brings us closer, and eases life in the home.” 

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