'Milking' Language For All It's Worth

By Ibby Caputo

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Jan. 9, 2012

baby sign language

A baby in Jill Tully's "Sign to Me, Sing to Me" playgroup tries out a word in sign language. (Courtesy of Brea Ashcraft)

 
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On a weekday afternoon, six women gathered with their newborns on a carpeted family room floor in an apartment in Cambridge. All new moms, they came together to learn a thing or two about sign language for their hearing babies.
 
“I had heard about baby sign before I had my baby,” said Courtney Horwitz, the mom who hosted the party. “People talk about it all the time now. It’s like a big thing."
 
A playgroup with a purpose
 
A big thing, but not a new thing. Sign language for babies has been popular among parents for a decade. What is new — at least for these moms — is the methods of Jill Tully.

Jill Tully
Tully teaches the babies a word. (Courtesy of Brea Ashcraft)

Tully, a mother of three, is what you might call a traveling teacher. She lives in Melrose, but teaches “Sign to Me, Sing to Me” playgroups all over the North Shore and Greater Boston Area. She charges $40 for the playgroup, which came out in this case to a little more than $6 per mom.
 
Tully showed up at Horwitz's apartment with an apple-green-and-white, polka-dot suitcase in tow. Attached to the outside of the bag was a round speaker and a tiny green mp3 player. As soon as Tully got through the door, she turned on the music.
 
The babies ranged from 6 months to 8 months old and collectively displayed all the signs of baby-ness: crawling, cooing and crying. But when Tully started singing and gesturing with her hands, the babies were mesmerized.
 
Tully’s exposure to American Sign Language, or ASL, began when she worked as a teacher for young children with language delays. She learned about its use with hearing babies after she had her first child. She loved the idea and took her daughter to a couple of classes, but then the instructor moved away.
 
“I was really bummed out cause I wanted to continue with it,” Tully said. “So I figured, I guess I’ll start teaching classes because no one else is and it is too cool to let it go.”
 
That daughter is now 7 and Tully has been developing her method of teaching sign to babies ever since.
 
Some people teach baby sign to parents in a workshop, Tully said, but she didn't like that approach. "I’m a teacher by nature so I wanted it to be engaging for both the parents and the children, so that the children are getting some music enrichment and learning some signs,” she said.
 
Baby sign language proponents say the primary purpose of teaching sign to infants is to increase early communication in order to decrease frustration. So if your baby knows the sign for milk — which, by the way, is similar to squeezing the udder of a cow—then she might not have to wail in order to get what she wants.
 
A medical perspective
 
Critics fear teaching sign language to babies might delay verbal speech. Kevin Shapiro, a pediatric neurology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, said there is a dearth of data on the effects of teaching sign to hearing babies.
 
"There’s some research that indicates that children who are exposed to symbolic gesture and develop larger gestural repertoires do a little better on measures of expressive and receptive language in the first two years of life,” Shapiro said. “But that advantage pretty much disappears by 30 months. Then their verbal language takes off and they are pretty much indistinguishable from other typically developed infants.”
 
But Shapiro said that babies are predisposed to pick up on symbolic gestures and primed to learn language. In fact, whether the language is spoken or signed, the regions of the brain involved in language development are similar — mostly in the left hemisphere, part of the inferior frontal lobe and part of the temporal lobe. And, Shapiro said, "We know that early exposure to language is a good predictor of language development down the line.”
 
So teaching your baby sign language might not make him smarter in the long run, but it might allow him to choose the topic of conversation. Shapiro used the example of an infant who makes the sign for “bird.”
 
“The parent knows that the infant is engaged in the birdie and will respond by saying, oh yes, it’s a birdie,” said Shapiro. “It’s a way of eliciting conversation from the parents, which we know is good for child language development.”
 
Baby sign language in the real world
 
The parents in Tully’s class were eager to know when their babies would start communicating through sign. She said that if babies are exposed to consistent signing, they can usually master simple signs by 16 to 20 months.
 
However, one mother in the group said her daughter, Aurora, used her first sign — "milk" — when she was only 6 months old. Brea Ashcraft said she and her husband had been signing "milk" every time they fed Aurora. One day, while taking a break from a feeding, Aurora looked right up at her mother and clenched her fist.
 
“I could hardly believe it,” Ashcraft said. “Over the next few days she started doing it more and more, and now does it a lot of times when she wants it and even when she’s eating.” If somebody walks in the room during a feeding, Aurora will stop, look up at the person, sign that she’s having "milk" and then go back to eating.
 
Ashcraft said Aurora now knows a second sign: diaper.
 
“On Saturday my husband was holding her and she was frantically signing for diaper,” Ashcraft said. “So he takes her into the bedroom, takes off her diaper and her diaper is dry, and he’s like, you don’t need your diaper changed, and then she peed all over him.”
 
The takeaway from that story? Some things clearly get lost in translation.

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