To date, claims about stress aren't well-supported. Nevertheless, there are hints that signing may help some parents become more attuned to what their babies are thinking. In the study led by Elizabeth Kirk, the researchers found that mothers who had been instructed to use baby signs behaved differently than mothers in the control group. The signing mothers tended to be more responsive to their babies' nonverbal cues, and they were more likely to encourage independent exploration Kirk et al So perhaps baby signing encourages parents to pay extra attention when they communicate.
Because they are consciously trying to teach signs, they are more likely to scrutinize their babies' nonverbal signals. As a result, some parents might become better baby "mind-readers" than they might otherwise have been, and that's a good thing. Being tuned into your baby's thoughts and feelings helps your baby learn faster. But of course parents don't need to participate in a baby sign language program to achieve these effects. The important thing is tuning into your baby, and figuring out what he or she wants. And this begs the question: Does teaching your baby signs from ASL or other languages necessarily give you more insight into what your baby wants?
It's a perfectly useful sign, and many babies have learned it. But what happens if you don't teach your baby this sign?
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Will your baby be incapable of letting you know that he wants more applesauce? Will your baby somehow fail to get across the message that she wants to play another round of peek-a-boo? When parents pay attention to their babies -- and engage them in conversation, one-on-one -- they learn to read their babies' cues. A baby might pat the table when he wants more applesauce.
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A baby might reach out and smile when she wants to play with you. They aren't signs borrowed from a language like ASL, but, in context, their meaning is clear. When we respond appropriately to these spontaneous gestures, we are engaged in successful communication, and we are helping our babies build the social skills they need to master language.
That doesn't mean there is no reason to teach formal signs. You might find that some signs are helpful -- that they allow for communication that is otherwise difficult for your baby. But it's wrong to think of formal signs as the only gestures that matter. From the very beginnings of humanity, parents and babies have communicated by gesture.
And research suggests that gestures matter. A lot! In fact, this is so important, it's worth considering in more detail. Imagine I stranded you in the middle of a remote, isolated nation. You don't speak the local language, and the locals don't recognize any of your words. What would you do? Very quickly, you'd resort to pantomime. And as you tried to learn the language, you'd soon appreciate that some people are a lot more helpful than others.
It isn't just that they're friendlier. Some people just seem to have a better knack for non-verbal cues. They follow your gaze, and comment on what you're looking at. They point at the things they are talking about. They use their hands and facial expressions to act out some of the things they are trying to say. And they're really good at it. When they talk, it's easier to figure out what they mean.
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Researchers call this ability "referential transparency," and it helps babies as well as adults. The evidence? Erica Cartmill and her colleagues made video recordings of real-life conversations between 50 parents and their infants — first when the babies were 14 months old, and again when they are 18 months old. Then, for each parent-child pair, the researchers selected brief vignettes — verbal interactions where the parent was using a concrete noun like the word "ball".
The researchers muted the soundtrack of each vignette, and inserted a beeping noise every time the parent uttered the target word. Next, they showed the resulting video clips to more than adult volunteers. They asked the volunteers to guess what the parents were talking about. When you hear the beep, what word do you think the parent is saying? The researchers were pretty tough graders. They didn't, for example, count guesses as correct if they were too general like guessing "toy" when the correct answer was "teddy bear".
Nor did they give volunteers credit for guesses that were too specific guessing "finger" when the correct answer was "hand". They also tried to eliminate vignettes where it was possible for volunteers to read the parents' lips.
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So the test wasn't easy, and it might give us an idea of how challenging it is for babies to decipher unfamiliar words. The outcome? It turns out there was a lot of variation between parents. Babies who had more "transparent" parents tested with larger vocabularies when they were four and half years old.
The link remained significant even after controlling for the babies' vocabularies at the beginning of the study. And there were other interesting points too. Although the sheer number of works spoken by parents predicted a child's vocabulary, it was high-quality, transparent communication that mattered most. And while researchers replicated a well-known finding — that parents of higher socioeconomic status SES use more words with their kids — there were no links between SES and referential transparency. Parents of high SES were no more likely than other parents to speak to their babies in a highly transparent way.
We can't be sure that referential transparency caused larger vocabularies. Maybe parents who scored high on referential transparency did so because they possessed a heritable trait — one they passed on to their kids — that makes people both better communicators and better verbal learners. But remember: Parents with high referential transparency were easier for adult volunteers to understand, and these adults were unrelated to the parents. And other research suggests that we can help our babies by being responsive to our babies' spontaneous gestures.
Most babies begin pointing between 9 and 12 months, and this can mark a major breakthrough in communication. By pointing, babies can make requests e. They can also ask questions "What is that? But the impact of this communicative breakthrough depends on our own behavior. Are we paying attention?
Do we respond appropriately? As psychologists Jana Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow have noted, a baby who points at a new object might prompt her parent to label and describe the object.
And if the adult tries to initiate -- by labeling an object that the baby didn't point at? We want to be like that those language tutors in the remote, far-off country — the ones who respond to other people's requests for information, and who have a knack for supplementing speech with easy-to-understand pantomime. That's a reasonable question, given that baby signing programs feature signs that are non-iconic.
Could the difficulty of learning such signs be a roadblock? Studies haven't found that babies trained to use signs suffer any disadvantages. So if you and your baby enjoy learning and using signs, you shouldn't worry that you're putting your baby at risk for a speech delay. In essence, you're just teaching your baby extra vocabulary -- vocabulary borrowed from a second language.
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