Teaching Little Minds to Sign, not Whine


By Rebecca Jarrard

Published in the July 2nd, 2002 edition of the Edmonds Journal, Lynnwood Journal, Northgate Journal, North Seattle Journal, Shoreline Journal, South Everett Journal, and University Journal

How many times have you looked into the dreamy depths of a baby’s eyes and wondered, “What is he thinking?” Add tears and tantrums to the scenario, and most people would give anything for an answer. Is his diaper wet? Could he be hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Sick?

There’s nothing more frustrating for a parent than playing this guessing game, and now some educators are saying it doesn’t have to work this way. “We tell parents to teach their baby to sign, not whine’,” says Nancy Hanauer, a state certified teacher who shows parents how to communicate with their preverbal children through American Sign Language. “Babies are so much more aware of what’s going on in their world than we realize. They want to comment and express their needs, they just don’t have the verbal ability to do that.”

But preverbal babies do have the manual dexterity, mental and visual ability to sign their needs, says Hanauer, and that’s why sign language is such an effective means of communication in infants, starting at about seven or eight months of age. “The whole idea is to reduce the stress, crying and guess work parents go through to figure out what their baby is trying to tell them,” she says. To begin, parents and their babies learn just a few simple signs like “more,” “change,” “sleep” and “milk,” and they adapt the practice to fit the individual needs of their family.

Some tots just learn a few basic signs to get them through the rough spots, while others really immerse themselves in the language and carry it on for years. “As with crawling, speaking, walking and all other skills, babies develop at their own pace,” says Hanauer. Bright, observant children often pick up signs within a few weeks of introduction and most learn to link words together. For example, babies might sign “Eat more please” when they’re still hungry.

Although sign language is an age-old method of communication, using signs with hearing babies is a new trend in parenting – and it’s catching on like wildfire. Local families have access to several baby-signing classes, as well as a variety of children’s sign-language videos and texts. Bellingham educator Joseph Garcia helped start the movement in 1994 with his book, Toddler Talk, and later Sign With Your Baby, which is also used as the basis for Hanauer’s curriculum. In addition, Hanauer introduces parents to a wide variety of baby-oriented signs not included in the textbook, such as relevant foods, numbers, colors and animals. “It’s very easy to slide signs into a daily routine, and once babies pick it up they’re like little sponges,” says Hanauer. “The beauty of the language is an ongoing source of inspiration for me.”

Hanauer has been fluent in sign language for more than 15 years and has over 10 years experience instructing adults, regular education students and special education students. She began teaching “Signing With Your Baby” classes in 2000, and says the results of over 200 local families have been phenomenal.

“No one can believe at just a little over age two how much Noelle talks,” says Sandi Young, a Mukilteo parent who attends Hanauer’s “Signing With Your Baby” classes. “Noelle tells stories, nursery rhymes and can repeat words correctly the first time she tries. I’ve noticed she watches us intently when we’re talking or reading which I think came from watching us sign to her. She picks things up so quickly.” JoDee Zappone of Lynnwood says Hanauer’s classes helped improve communication and cut down on tantrums.

“Parents tell me that when they use signing, the terrible twos are not so terrible,” says Hanauer. “Think about it: The terrible twos are two years of pent-up frustration over a child not being able to express what he or she wants. By relieving that frustration, the child learns to communicate more effectively.”

When they are old enough to speak, Hanauer says babies will naturally phase out the use of sign language or use signs in addition to talking. Current research suggests that sign language actually makes it easier for babies to learn how to talk. Studies conducted by two California professors found babies who sign tend to speak sooner than their peers, and by age 2 have an average of 50 words more in their vocabulary. Hanauer says she’s seen evidence of these results herself.

“Babies who sign start talking sooner than their hearing peers and they also speak in a more sophisticated manner,” she reports. “When you sign, you’re using both sides of the brain, so these babies are stimulating their brains in ways that non-signing babies aren’t. When these kids start talking, we can’t get them to stop.”

jump to top of page