The Importance of Early Language Learning for Baby

Before birth, baby has been listening to sounds while mother is still carrying him, even though it might sound like voices under water. Babies do in fact learn in the womb, and what they learn helps them after they are born. Research shows babies prefer to hear a higher pitched voice because of the familiarity they already have with their mother’s voice.9

Learning how to speak begins during infancy, when baby’s tongue comes in and out of the mouth. It’s this exercising and experimenting with the muscles used for speech that gets baby ready to talk. You may also notice some cooing, perhaps at different volumes. It takes time for baby to learn to coordinate all these parts, which is a reason why speech seems to take so long to emerge. While baby is developing these skills, he is also busy watching human faces (which he loves), hearing talking, and observing the world around him.

Before the body parts for speech are fully developed, believe it or not, your baby is ready to sign! The reason is because the part of the brain used for speech is developing slower than the part of the brain baby uses to learn sign language. A baby’s hand muscles are developed earlier than the muscles used for speech.10 You can introduce simple signs from birth to help you become familiar with them and comfortable using them. You may even incorporate sign language with reading. When your baby is ready to produce the first sign, as early as 6–8 months, you will be ready to know and teach the signs you want your baby to learn. Too many parents wait to gain the knowledge themselves until they feel their baby can sign, but these bases should be covered earlier.

Many babies will develop their own signs for communicating if no one teaches them proper signs. In fact, it’s never too late to teach your child how to sign and reap the many benefits. The use of sign language can reduce frustration and even raise a child’s IQ. Consider the study by John D. Bonvillian and Keith E. Nelson, titled “Sign Language Acquisition in a Mute Autistic Boy.”11 The study begins with an initial assessment of 9-year-old Ted, a boy with autism who does not speak. Children with autism generally do not like changes in their routine, are poor communicators, can become frustrated if misunderstood, do not socialize very well, and have behavior problems, to name a few common traits. I think most families can identify with one or more of these problems even if they do not have a child with special needs.

When Ted was 2 he displayed “emotional disturbances.” A hearing test was done to rule out hearing loss as a reason for these problems, but Ted’s hearing was within normal ranges. Starting at age 3, his parents tried several programs to improve his communication, including computers, group play therapy, and the use of incentives to encourage speech and to motivate paying attention to teacher and parent. When Ted was 9, the teacher noted that his receptive skills had improved somewhat since he had started pointing to objects, although he was still uncommunicative and his social interactions were inappropriate. The teacher decided to try sign language. Signing is easily taught since it is a visual form of communication, and Ted’s hands could be molded to make the signs.

The teacher, family, and other staff members would help “mold” Ted’s hands to make the sign for an object as they verbalized the word in English. It was important to involve the family so that Ted could “generalize” his American Sign Language (ASL) beyond the confines of the learning center.

During the next six months, Ted developed a functional language. Ted learned to sign when he needed to use the bathroom, tantrums were reduced, overall body movements were calmed, and his social interactions improved. Sign language proved to be the only way Ted could communicate, and the use of sign language improved his life dramatically. Signing can work for you too.

Early intervention starts when your baby comes home from the hospital. Start reading! Your baby won’t even care if you read a recipe book—just read. If you are unfamiliar with American Sign Language, now is the time to learn it, or if you already know ASL, now is the time to brush up on your skills. Be ready to teach.

Keep signs consistent and relevant to daily activities, like eating and bathing, starting with “eat,” “bath,”and “more,” for example. “Model” the sign repeatedly for baby. You may even mold the sign with baby’s hand as you verbalize the word. Always say the word as you are making the sign. The next step is to put two signs together, such as “more eat” and “more bath.” Once your baby catches on that use of a sign produces a certain effect, you are on your way to expanding vocabulary related to those effects. Try using those signs in different settings and in a different context. You will find you have a much happier (and smarter!) baby.

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