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Signing is pre-speech language

Parents, babies can communicate earlier through the use of ASL.

A 10-month-old tapping the tips of his fingers together might look like he is makingrandom baby gestures, but these were Jackson Hemmat’s first words.

And there’s nothing wrong with the youngster’s ears; he’s part of a growing number of infants learning to communicate through American Sign Language, even before they can talk.

“Jackson asked for ‘more yogurt’ and we just flipped out,” his mother Dani Hemmat said. “As soon as he could sign, we couldn’t sign enough. He was picking up a sign a week and then a sign every three days. You couldn’t stop him.”

The Fort Ward parents learned how to sign because Jackson’s dad Jeff Hemmat, who is deaf in one ear, was fascinated by ASL. They took a course and started signing as they spoke to each other, and their son for simple words like “milk,” “more” and “thank you.”

They signed for two months before Jackson signed back at 10 months and started talking two weeks later.

Even after he started talking, signing made his wants clearer.

Dani recalls preparing for a trip, and Jackson speaking the word, “fummy, fummy” to his parents’ blank stares. Then he made the sign for “monkey” – the name of his security blanket – and all was understood.

Children don’t learn to fully form words until about 16 months, Dani said, but have the motor coordination at seven or eight months to sign.

“The ‘terrible twos’ (for Jackson) were not terrible,” she said. “His frustration level was low.”

“I find it really decreases the frustration,” agrees Laurie Seaborne, lead teacher for 15-21- month-old children at First Years day care where signing is widely used. A side benefit, she said, is that kids associate the spoken word with the sign, helping them learn to speak.

Seaborne turns to one of her charges who’s just finished his vegetables.

“Do you want more, Jack?” she asks, while signing “more.”

Jack signs the word back and gets another serving.

“It’s useful in a group setting with lots of needs to be met,” Seaborne said.

Dani recalls that before her son could really talk, he could tell his mother “diaper full,” “food too hot” or “teeth hurt.”

Some of her friends pooh-poohed the notion, saying signing would delay a child’s verbal development.

“But our child started talking before theirs,” she said, and the non-believers took up signing.

Baby sign language recently gained attention through its appearance in the movie “Meet the Fockers,” but adherents don’t believe it’s a fad.

First Years owner and president Kathy Hartley estimates that signing to babies has been around for at least 15-20 years, but was little known among child care providers and educators until recently.

Half the parents of Seaborne’s toddlers sign with their children. One child arrived already knowing 60 words and concepts.

Seaborne’s colleague Jenny Springer, lead teacher for the 8-14-month-old children, has cared for children before knowing signs. Now using signs, Springer says kids just seem happier being able to communicate a couple of months earlier.

Springer sees an almost whole-body sigh of relief once kids are able to communicate, as if to say “finally, somebody understands what I want.”

A parent in Dani’s class, Kelly Sparks, wanted to learn to sign so that she and her 7-month-old daughter, Ruby, could better communicate with her deaf father-in-law. Ruby hasn’t started signing yet, but understands the sign for “all-done.”

“She hates to be in the high chair, so she learned ‘all-done’ quickly,” Sparks said. The girl will smile and hold out her arms to be taken out of the chair when she sees the sign.

First Years started using ASL some years ago, when Hartley learned it was a way to lessen the pushing, shoving and biting among kids —caused by frustration at not being understood — that is an issue at day cares.

At the same time, she had an employee who used a hearing aid, and a teacher who knew ASL. The center started teaching the 18-month-olds at first, and the biting and other issues lessened.

And then “the other teachers wanted to learn and it spread like wildfire,” Hartley said.

Now the day care begins signing with children from about 8 months old.

Watching non-signing friends struggle with their toddlers, Dani decided to teach others and so studied and became certified by Seattle-based Northlight Communication to teach ASL to parents and babies. The teaching method was developed by Joseph Garcia and uses the book “Sign With Your Baby.”

Just last November, she was at Fort Ward State Park with now 2-year-old Jackson, who wanted to pick more blackberries and was signing “more berries.”

Two older women walking by recognized his signing and struck up a conversation with Jackson, who signed to them about wanting to pick more berries, the squirrels he’d seen and the sea lions he’d heard.

And at parties, Dani herself finds signing handy to signal her husband across the room:

“More drink.”

* * * * *

Signs for life

Dani Hemmat’s next four-week course in baby sign language will be 7:15-8:15 p.m. Wednesdays starting May 4. Cost is $60. A free one-hour workshop will be 10-11 a.m. April 9. Classes and workshops are at Seabold Community Hall on Komedal Road. Space limited; register in advance to 780-0606 or see www.fingerlingsbabysign.com for more information.

For more on baby signing, see www.sign2me.com or http://commtechlab.msu.edu/sites/aslweb/browser.htm for an American Sign Language browser.

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