(Sign) of the times

Even for hearing children, learning ASL facilitates language at an early age

Even for hearing children, learning ASL facilitates language at an early age

December 13, 2002|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

I've often wished while working with toddlers that I knew exactly what 1- to 2-year-olds want.

A little finger points and I think it's aimed at a toy.

But when the toy is placed beside the child, the finger remains in the air, and the pleading gets a little more urgent.

Cracker? Water? Blanket?

I'll eventually guess correctly, but the child's frustration mounts as the scene continues.

It must be disgruntling to be dependent on someone to meet your needs and be unable to communicate what those needs are.

How can we parents and care-givers help children communicate their needs more easily?

Rachel de Azevedo Coleman feels the answer is American Sign Language.

"Hearing children are able to pick it up very quickly," says Coleman. "I feel sign language is the greatest gift any parent can give to a child because it is the gift of communication."


When her first child, Leah, was born deaf, Coleman was determined to learn sign language.

Most of the videos she purchased were dull or difficult. A musician, she wanted something interesting and easy so relatives and friends could learn sign language and communicate with Leah.

Coleman and her sister, Emilie de Azevedo Brown, decided to create their own video.

"I said, 'I'm going to make it so easy, a baby could learn it,'" Coleman says.

The sisters formed the company Two Little Hands Productions, based in Draper, Utah. Their first video, "Signing Time: My First Signs" is a top-selling sign language video on Last month, they released two more videos, "Playtime Signs" and "Everyday Signs," and a "Signing Time" CD.

Coleman says babies as young as six months can learn signs.

"Don't make your baby cry to communicate," she says.

Teach them signs, such as the one for milk - make a fist, open it and close it, as if you were milking a cow.

How do you get a child from fussing for something to learning its sign? Each time you offer the item, say its name and show your child the sign for it. Eventually, the child will associate the sign with the item and will start to use it when asking for the item.

Parents may be hesitant to teach sign language to hearing children, thinking that if they can sign, they won't talk, Coleman says.

Some children may cut back on talking for a short period because they think it's neat to use a "secret language," but research shows that hearing children who learn to sign have larger vocabularies, fewer tantrums and higher IQ scores than those who don't, Coleman says.

Leah learned signs much in the same order as most hearing children learn words, but she did so at a much faster pace, Coleman says. At 14 months, she had no language, no way to communicate. Within one month, she learned 70 signs.

Coleman's second child, Lucy, was born with spina bifida and cerebral palsy. She said no words for her first two years of life. Doctors predicted she would never be able to communicate with her deaf sister.

But she recently started to use signs that she learned from the video, much to her mother's delight.

"What I thought I was doing for Leah turned into an amazing gift to me and my baby," Coleman says.

For information, check out on the Web.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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