Danville Express

Living - January 26, 2007

Give me a sign

Toddlers learn to communicate early with sign language

by Natalie O'Neill

At 11 months old most babies can't speak more than a word or two. But that's not stopping a group of Danville parents from communicating with their babies - without words.

Baby sign language classes at the Danville Community Center combine signing, singing and playing to teach 11-18-month-olds how to express themselves using simple hand movements.

You don't have to be deaf to use sign language, say class instructors Julie Corbett and Julie Burlingame, who are best friends and jokingly refer to themselves as "the Julies."

Long before little ones are able to speak, they have the ability to understand and use signs to converse.

"It shows them that language is powerful at a very young age," said Corbett, instructor of the Sign, Say and Play classes, held in the East Bay.

Research proves that learning sign language as a baby or toddler promotes healthy social, cognitive and emotional growth. And it gears babies up for the communication skills necessary for life, Corbett and Burlingame say.

"Signing is a very intimate thing, there is a lot of eye contact and attention given to the child," Corbett said.

Classes in Danville start out with social time, followed by a session of signing to songs and reading aloud - with frequent breaks for playing. Each class has a simple concept or theme behind it such as "outside," "feelings," or "birthday."

Instructors work with bubbles, plastic toys and a parachute to encourage signing. In a recent class, instructors used bubbles to prompt the babies to say "more," with their hands. Several toddlers signed to convey that they wanted instructors to blow a second round of bubbles.

"People are realizing babies can do more than we think," Burlingame said.

Parents say the social environment of the class is great and that signing helps decrease aggravation for both the baby and the parent. Instead of trying to guess why your pre-verbal child is crying or screaming, simple signs can help baby express that he or she is thirsty, hungry or needs a diaper change.

"It's phenomenal. The No. 1 thing I hear is that it reduces frustration," Corbett said.

The popularity of signing classes for babies has increased dramatically over the last five years, when it was introduced into the mainstream by television programs and movies like "Meet the Fockers," in which a non-deaf infant character frequently communicates with sign language.

"It partly has to do with pop culture," Burlingame said, pointing out an increase in products from companies like Baby Einstien, which makes interactive toys, books and DVDs for babies and toddlers.

In this class, the young ones aren't the only ones learning. Part of the session is dedicated to teaching parents everyday tips on how to help their children develop socially and emotionally while the toddlers play. Last week instructors spoke briefly on the "attachment theory," stating that it's good for a child's development to let them explore away from their parents, while still having them in sight.

But while cultivating early communication and intellect is catching on, Corbett and Burlingame say they still hear concerns about whether signing will hinder vocal communication.

"We hear, 'My mother-in-law says she'll never speak if she learns to sign first,'" Corbett said.

This is baloney, she says.

Twenty years worth of studies proves this isn't the case - that signing is a first step, like crawling before you walk. Just because your baby learns to crawl and sign first, doesn't mean he or she will only be able to crawl and sign into adulthood. In fact, it actually gives babies a head start with language skills, Corbett says.

Corbett and Burlingame both have education and professional experience in the field of child development along with being the mothers of young children themselves. Burlingame received a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in developmental psychology from San Francisco State. Corbett has a bachelor's in psychology and has worked for several years with children who have developmental disorders.

To find out more about baby signing visit www.babysignsbayarea.com.

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