Tots Can Say A Lot Workshop Helps Parents Translate


By Jennifer Warnick
Published in the January 11th, 2004 edition of The Everett Herald.

At 8 months old, Marcus Mussivand has expressive brown eyes that tell his mother, Camano Island resident Debbie Mussivand, exactly what he’s thinking when she puts him in his crib before he’s ready.

After spending Saturday at a baby sign language class, Marcus also may be able to use gestures to tell his mother a lot of other things as well. Using American Sign Language before he’s able to talk means Marcus could learn to ask for food or milk before he’s even a year old. He could politely suggest that his parents change his diaper. He could even tell them when he’s not feeling so hot.

As teacher Nancy Hanauer said during a “Signing With Your Baby” workshop at Stanwood Public Library on Saturday afternoon, most hearing children don’t start stringing coherent sentences together until they are about 2 years old. “But you don’t have to wait that long,” Hanauer said. “Little ones really do have more going on than we give them credit for.” The Seattle-based former special education teacher tells parents that by teaching babies sign language, the babies will be able to clearly communicate their needs. Hanauer, who now makes her living teaching baby sign language, gives workshops around the area and in people’s homes.

She bases a lot of her teachings on the book “Sign With Your Baby” by Bellingham teacher and sign language interpreter Joseph Garcia, and she herself has more than 15 years of American Sign Language experience. She urges parents to start off with three to five basic signs — gestures for words such as hungry, food, milk, hurt and diaper change. Parents can begin teaching babies the signs at mealtimes, and can also use playtime and songs to reinforce the signs. On average, a little over a month after parents begin signing with babies, the babies begin signing back.

“It’s very Pavlovian,” Hanauer said. “I hate to reduce it to this, but it’s cause and effect.” Babies aren’t able to form words until they are about a year old, but they can communicate and understand language much sooner than that, she said.

At 7 to 8 months old, babies have the memory, the hand coordination and the smarts to communicate through sign language months before they can speak. The way Hanauer sees it, there are legions of frustrated babies and young children out there. It’s adults that need to catch up by giving babies a jump-start on language.

Traditionally, parents think they have to wait until a baby joins the adult verbal world to start getting to know their child. “Now you can start to get to know your child at 7 or 8 months of age,” she said. Teaching children basic sign language and adding new signs as they get older is a way of decoding what they’re thinking and feeling. It’s also a way of bonding, and a way of reducing aggravation. The “terrible twos,” she said, are a perfect example of this. “It’s two years of built-up frustration of no one understanding you,” she said. “For children who can communicate using sign language, it’s not so terrible. They can express themselves without whining, kicking, screaming and throwing a temper tantrum.”

Some parents worry that teaching a child sign language means the child will choose signing over speaking. That isn’t true, Hanauer said. Instead, when children are ready, they replace the signs with words — and often a lot of them. Baby sign language hones a child’s communication skills so much that when they do begin to speak, they often are highly articulate. She said studies show that children who signed as babies on the whole are more confident and have higher IQs.

Baby sign language also teaches kids the beginnings of a legitimate second language at a very young age — a language they may choose to continue to pursue into adulthood. Along with raising awareness and interest in American Sign Language, it makes more people sensitive to the deaf community, she said.

While some believe that teaching babies sign language is an abstract concept, “everything is an abstract concept for your baby until you make the connection for them,” Hanauer said.

Marcus’ mother said she brought him so she could learn to make that connection with him. “Anything that can be added to his developing skills is important,” she said. “”I’m interested for myself to learn more sign language, too. “Marcus’ grandmother, Sherry Erickson, also of Camano Island, accompanied her daughter and grandson to the baby sign language class. “It would be so amazing if the baby could actually respond to you like that,” Erickson said. “I know there’s something in there he wants to tell us.”

jump to top of page