Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Babies sign up

On the German sternTV program just now I saw a remarkable documentary about children communicating with their hands, as in sign language for the deaf. But these children were not deaf.

Already at the age of 10 months, children are able to use simple structured gestures in interacting with their parents - for instance to "signal" recognition of situations in which the gestures were learned, as when they hear background music again in a store when they revisit it. It was said that an American working with deaf children had noticed that they learned to deploy signs at a much earlier age than hearing children usually learn to speak.

Mothers who had been trying this out with their children were in the studio with their kids, talking about it with the moderator Günther Jauch. One woman said that in the course of six weeks there had been so many opportunities to learn signs that her child had learned 60 of them. The film had shown a small girl with her parents in a zoo. The child was about 1.5 years old. She had learned simple signs for different animals on previous visits. On this visit, every time she came to an animal she knew she would make the special sign for it. I remember that she made the ones for bear, rabbit, and giraffe.

One explanation for the phenomenon was that gross motor skills are acquired in the hands much earlier than are the fine motor skills needed for speech. The film explicitly warned against imagining that this signing is a prefiguration of unusual intelligence, or that it might accelerate or hinder speech learning at a later age. I took this as intended to put a damper on the kind of parents who want to discover black gold in their kids, and are prepared to drill for it if necessary. The commentator also warned against trying to force this signing on children. Here is an American website I found about the subject.

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