Which parent has not exulted when baby lifts her hand in an awkward “bye-bye,” or shakes her head for the first time to convey an emphatic “no?” All animals have some form of gestural ability in order to communicate within species. My sub-primate golden doodle displays his abilities admirably when he uses a simple communicable action to thumb his nose at a canine neighbor’s warning. He lowers his haunches and pees in front of the infuriated barking dog threatened by our proximity to his territory.
During prehistoric times, gesturing and signing were probably the primary means of communication. We can well imagine the Stone Age hunter gesticulating with fingers and eyes for quiet in order to execute a stealthy kill. Among humans, gestures are as natural as talk and they precede human speech in the ontogeny of language. The rolling of eyes in scornful expression is now almost a rite of passage to teenhood.
M.S Thirumalai, editor of Language in India, writes that gestures maintain and enhance “the level of intimacy between individuals.” Among other things, he calls it a reflection of the visual attitude of the soul. This observation, though imprecise, does have some credulity, for in extreme and deep moments of connection we often resort to soundless gestural acts like kissing, hugging, smiling or crying. Language somehow becomes inadequate when deep emotions are involved. So while gestures and sign language predate the spoken word, they are never completely eliminated from our vocabulary.
The culture of the Indian subcontinent, in particular, inclines towards gesturing while talking. Hands wave, eyebrows become mobile, and lips shape in slow exaggerated affectation. Dance forms like bharatanatyam rely heavily on the ability to gesture. A reference in Manmohan Ghosh’s translation of Natyasastrain 1967 explains the purpose of abhinaya (in dance forms) as illuminating the content of songs or words in a play. So, in a supplemental role, gestures and signing can help advance comprehension.
In a primary role, the benefits to the hearing-challenged are evident, but how about infants and toddlers?
There can be no arguing that babies would be better able to express themselves if they learned a system of communication before their tongues were able to manipulate a coherent language of sounds. Children and infants use signs all the time. Sadly, it is our inability to understand or pay attention that is often the issue. Take for example, the pulling of the ear to indicate an earache, or clenched fists to indicate tiredness, or sticking the tongue in and out of the mouth or smacking the lips to indicate hunger. Experienced parents, in most cases, can gauge what the child needs by the movements that precede the crying session. The benefits of teaching a more formalized system of signing, could possibly take the guesswork out of the process.
Many studies have found that babies use gestures to control, manipulate and understand their environment. “At around nine months of age human infants begin to gesture (and sometimes to vocalize with cries or grunts),” writes socio linguist Elizabeth Bates, “in order to get adults either (i) to do something for them (e.g., get something for them or perform some activity), or (ii) to share attention with them to some object or ongoing event.” These types of gesturing, she says, jumpstart the process of communication.
As they grow older, these hand signs and gestures change to a more supplemental role after the acquisition of conventional linguistic skills. Work in neuroscience has shown that the areas in the brain that control the mouth and speech and the areas that control the hands and gestures overlap a great deal and develop together.
Teaching simple gestures and signs to babies before they can talk can springboard developmental milestones, claims Montessori kindergarten teacher Sridevi Natarajan. She watched a friend and her twelve-month-old baby engaging in a signing conversation. Natarajan was intrigued enough to participate in a workshop run by Baby Signs, an organization started by Linda Acredolo of the University of California at Davis, and Susan W. Goodwyn of the California State University at Stanislaus. They found that second graders who had been encouraged to use the Baby Signs signing system during the second year of life had an advantage of 12 IQ points over children who did not use any such system.
Acredolo cautions parents that this is not the reason to sign up for the Baby Signs program. The main reason is to improve the relationship between parent and child and to help babies “share their world with you.” In 1996 Acredolo and Goodwyn published Baby Signs: How to Talk to Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, which became a best-selling parenting title, parents being ever ready to clutch at any straw that can perpetuate the dream of superior achievement.
It stands to reason that parents who talk a lot to their children incorporate signs and gestures as part of the communicative package. This increased level of interaction, whether verbal or signing, generally leads to a larger vocabulary. Furthermore, since verbal skills are an essential part of the IQ test, it would naturally result in an increased IQ score.
In a laboratory experiment, it was demonstrated that when two babies (one ten months old and the other nine months) who cried frequently were taught signs, their crying and whining decreased in proportion to their ability to convey commands through signs.
However, the experiment was deemed inconclusive since the experimenters used the strategy of extinction: rewarding only for using the correct signs, never for the crying. In other words the baby was rewarded only for the desired outcome, which biased the results.
With any wildly popular new idea it is important to temper expectations. Esther Wender, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Yeshiva University says that gesturing is “like trying to teach children to walk earlier. It just doesn’t make sense neurologically.” However, Natarajan passionately believes that signing to infants and toddlers helps their cognitive, verbal and emotional development and “babies throw fewer to no tantrums when they have the ability to express through signs.” But wouldn’t that also presuppose that verbally agile two- and three-year-olds exist tantrum-free since they have learned an essential vocabulary to express themselves? I only wish that were true!
More information on sign language for babies can be found athttp://babysigns.com.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a prize-winning fiction writer and is currently in the process of writing a novel.