Strolling her toddler into the shoe store recently, Elise Niiler Rowley saw nothing but shoes. But 15-month-old Sonia had her eye on something else. Although she doesn't have many words yet, Sonia was able to tell her mother about it.
"She started flapping her arms, which is her sign for bird," Ms. Rowley says. "I looked around and there was a stuffed parrot hanging from the ceiling. I hadn't noticed it."
Sonia isn't deaf, but her parents started teaching her simple signs when she was about nine months old. Their goal is to help facilitate communication while she learns to speak. Sonia now knows about 30 signs ranging from airplane (arms out to sides) and Cheerio (finger and thumb together) to duck (moving hand in quacking motion) and Papa (two pats on the chest). Every child learns to wave bye-bye and nod for "yes" or "no." Baby sign language extends that idea to help preverbal children communicate more fully through gestures. What parent doesn't yearn for a window into their child's mind during the long wait for words? Simplified sign language helps alleviate the frustration when a child's ability to understand far exceeds the ability to speak, say advocates. "The main benefit is it's a lot of fun," says Sonia's father, Michael Rowley. "It's not necessarily to give Sonia a head start in language acquisition or anything like that. It's just a way of connecting." Yet research suggests that teaching a preverbal baby to gesture does boost language skills. Linda Acredolo, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, began studying the phenomenon 15 years ago when her one-year-old daughter came up with her own spontaneous gestures. First, she began sniffing every time she saw a flower in real life or in a book. Then, she picked up blowing whenever she saw a fish - after watching her mother blow the fish mobile above her bed. From those early personal experiences, Ms. Acredolo began a long-term research project to determine if signing hinders vocal development in any way. After years of comparative research, Acredolo says the benefits of teaching babies sign language are overwhelming. "The signing babies were ahead of the pack at almost every measure at every age. …