Baby talk

Even at just a few months old, babies have demonstrated that they are capable of much more than blowing bubbles and dirtying up their diapers

Tara Burke and son Phoenix work on signing together in their Carson City home.

Tara Burke and son Phoenix work on signing together in their Carson City home.

Photo By David Robert

“BeeBo, BeeBo,” chirps Phoenix, the younger of Tara Burke’s two sons.

“This is the bear that I use in the Sign, Say and Play classes,” Burke says, sliding her arms through BeeBo’s sweater sleeves to animate the stuffed bear. “What’s BeeBo got? What is this?”

“Mine,” stresses Phoenix, with self-actualization typical of a 2-year-old.

Burke laughs, asking, “Is it water?”

“Yeah,” he says. “My water.”

Though a toddler, Phoenix can confidently get his point across using Baby Signs, a method of communication which sprang from American Sign Language. Doctors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn commenced National Institutes of Health-funded research in 1982. With the success of their 1996 book Baby Signs: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, Baby Signs was born.

Infants from 6 months of age learn 16 starter signs, including “mommy,” “daddy,” “please,” “thank you,” “more” and “all done.” Tots can learn six to 10 signs per class, yielding 40-60, even 100 or more signs. Not bad for the diaper-clad.

Baby Signs aims not to be a substitute for language but to kick-start communication. Literacy is a huge focus, facilitated through books, music, video and interactive exercises. While Baby Signs is not just for language- or speech-delayed children, being able to sign what they mean involves less frustration for a very young child with a limited vocabulary. Burke says dialogue can be facilitated even with kids as young as 6-months-old.

“They’re trying to say they need their diaper changed, they’re hungry or tired,” says Burke, 33. “At six months, all they can really do is cry. With sign language, we teach them to use the same skills they’d use with ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ [and] expand on that. Some signs we use have been altered [from American Sign Language] just a little bit, to help their little hands actually perform the signs. We allow the parent to choose the different variations of the signs and what to use. For example, this is the sign for frog, which is kind of hard to do for a 6-month-old. Frogs stick their tongues out, so we teach them an alternative for the ASL sign.”

Watching Burke work with Phoenix is intriguing and a testament to the research by the program’s founders.

Might I have a pecan cookie, Mother?
“They found that babies make up their own signs all the time, and we just don’t maybe recognize or acknowledge them,” says Burke. “[Acredolo and Goodwyn] developed a group of signing babies and non-signing babies in a research group for eight years and found that the children who were encouraged to sign—and parents who were encouraged to teach them American Sign Language and move forward with the communication of sign, as well as speech—had higher IQs, learned to speak earlier and [developed better] hand-eye coordination.”

Tara Burke and son Phoenix work with BeeBo the signing bear. BeeBo is one in a line of Baby Signs products. Note the yellow gloves that Tara puts her hands through to show signing.

Photo By David Robert

When her first-born, Hunter, was 6 months old, Burke gave Baby Signs a shot, to stunning results.

“When he was 10 months, he signed his first sign, which was ‘milk,’” she recalls. “By the time he was 18 months old, he knew about 120 signs, so we could talk about anything he wanted to: colors, sky, moon, sun, trucks, animals. He knew the signs for all of them.”

Reassured by a maternal instinct that she knew would increase parent-child bonding, Burke sought to convince Donald, 34, her spouse of 10 years.

“My husband wasn’t too excited about the idea, but once he saw Hunter starting to sign, he jumped right on board. At that point, I had such a fondness for the program because of all the great things that it brought to our relationship; being first-time parents and how great it was to communicate with [Hunter]. I decided that I wanted to be able to teach it to other people. We were living in Maine, and there was nobody in the area who’d heard about it or anything like it.”

For the next three months, Burke met with an instructor in Vermont, attended mock classes where she became proficient in Baby Signs.

“It was pretty intensive. It’s not an American Sign Language certification—it’s a Baby Signs certification. I’m not certified to be an interpreter. It’s just for this program. I had no background in ASL, except for the alphabet and things like that. We learned along with Hunter.”

I’m studying physics, dammit. Change my damn diaper and get out!
Burke pauses to referee a dispute between the boys, with Phoenix still a bit fussy from a cold. He’s instantly, effectively distracted by a Baby Signs DVD, part of a growing curriculum. In the story, animated characters visit The Letter Factory. Phoenix recognizes and identifies letters, then grabs the companion book, sits in Mama’s lap, flips the pages and signs each familiar sign.

“Yellow, yellow, yellow,” he says, looking at a duck in the book and moving his little hand. Mama smiles, recalling her own childhood in which she moved around a lot. Burke is the daughter of Carol and Jeffrey Scott, directors of Carson City’s Wild Horse Productions and its innovative children’s theater. “My parents are both hippies, so I spent a lot of time in the back of a VW bus, going cross-country,” she says. “We just decided to go wherever the road took us, and being in a bus for a long period of time, you sing songs and get theatrical.”

All the world’s a stage, and it all started with “How now, brown cow.”

“The whole process of the Baby Signs program is solely based on repetition, hearing the word and seeing the word,” Burke advises. “So when we’re teaching the sign for milk—the bottle, ready to feed them—you say, ‘Do you want some milk?’ and you say the word, you sign the word. Then halfway through the bottle you say, ‘That’s good milk,’ and sign and say again. So it’s all about repetition.”

Repetition is key to memorization, hence the success of the sing-songy rhymes popular with preschoolers. Squeezing Baby Signs into a busy schedule is simple, too, as a multitude of learning opportunities present themselves throughout the day.

“I work full-time,” says Burke, who has a degree in advertising and her own home-based, graphic-design business, Computer Artistry. “The kids are in daycare and preschool, and we did signing when we could fit it in. That meant at bath time, we introduced some bath time signs; at mealtime, we introduced mealtime signs, and when it was time for bed, we talked about the moon and stars.”

Kids who sign are apt to try to teach it to their peers, Burke says. Teachers who use Baby Signs can enjoy enhanced communication with children who sign, too.

“Seeing is believing, for sure,” says Burke. “My in-laws weren’t too keen on the program. When I started with Hunter, they thought, ‘If you teach him how to sign, he’s not going to learn to talk.’ In fact, it’s the furthest thing from the truth. They actually learn to speak sooner. [For] parents of infants and toddlers, who are struggling between the non-talking and the talking age, it bridges that gap.”