Playing in his crib at 10 months old, Ezekiel calmly got his mother’s attention and signed “more music.” Realizing only then that the mobile had stopped, his mom wound it up again and Ezekiel continued playing happily. A hearing child in a hearing family, he has been exposed to sign language since birth. Not only was he able to express his needs clearly without tears of frustration, he also used a two “word” phrase. This level of language is rarely present until 18 months, or more typically at two years.
Music mediated sign language instruction has several central purposes. The first is to guide a child, deaf or hearing, in developing fluent language skills while promoting effective communication. The second is to support the development of language as a tool for literacy attainment. Third, it will create an effective and rewarding vehicle for self-expression and self-esteem. The fourth purpose or objective is to facilitate social interaction and age appropriate play. Additional benefits include more rhythmic speech; growth in balance, spatial reasoning and motor skills; increased IQ, auditory and perceptual awareness, attention span, memory recall, and vocabulary and improved family relationship.
The first three years are the most critical years for a child’s language development, though it may be introduced among children of any age. Signing not only offers a method of communication to nonverbal children, but it also facilitates the onset and development of spoken language for pre-linguistic children. Studies have proven that once a set of conceptual, cognitive, and linguistic skills are developed, they can be transferred or are applicable to the subsequent development of a second language. As children naturally gesture in self-expression, there is a growing consensus that a sign language such as American Sign Language (ASL) should be presented as the first language in infancy and childhood.
Research in early childhood development has indicated a strong relationship between the ability to keep a steady beat and the ability to read. Further studies have found that the early experience of signing, results in the ability to keep a competent, steady beat, thus linking music and sign language to reading skills. A longitudinal study conducted in California ascertained that by second grade, a group of children who were exposed to sign language in infancy were advanced in vocabulary development, and had an average IQ 12 points higher than their peers. Researchers have discovered that music training can improve children’s future abilities to solve complex math and geometry problems, navigate ships, design skyscrapers, and improve intelligence. In one particular study, spatial reasoning skills of preschool children given eight months of music lessons far exceeded that of preschoolers without music training.
What can families do at home to reinforce language development? First and foremost, have fun! Talk and sing to your baby at all times. Carry your baby in the front carrier or sling so you can sing and dance together heart to heart-literally. Quietly listen to and feel each other’s breathing and heartbeats, two of the most significant aspects of both life and music. Respond to your baby’s cooing and babbling. Make eye contact. Listen to music together; children should be exposed to all genres from birth. Watch an opera. Make Sesame Street a family event; count and sing along. Dance together; demonstrate and watch how our body rhythms can change along with musical changes. Sing out loud; all our voices are good enough for singing, at least in the privacy of our own homes! Have a basket of small hand held instruments available for spontaneous play-include drums, maracas, bells, kazoos/whistles, xylophones. Be the performer and the audience, allowing your child to play both roles as well…take a bow and applaud one another.
Find picture books or storybooks with sign language diagrams, such as My First Sign Language ABC, Animal Signs, and the Where’s Spot? series. Purchase a sign language dictionary or find one on line. Dawn Sign Press has published a book called Signs for Me, full of children’s vocabulary–it also makes a great coloring book. Put in a video tape of signed songs and watch as a family; even make your own music and/or sign language video together. Learn signs for your child’s favorite animals, toys, foods…incorporate them into your day as you play, walk through the park, eat, and shop. Put a photo album together of your baby’s favorite people, places, and things; s/he can start to communicate by smiling or cooing, then pointing to the photo, later using the sign, and eventually saying the name or word. Encourage other significant people in your child’s life like baby sitter, grandparents, siblings, etc. to learn the signs as well. Look for age appropriate playgroups so you and your baby both have an opportunity to socialize. Invest in a class or two to take together.