There is a growing movement that shows introducing basic sign language to young children — even before they can talk out loud — can boost their brain development, while helping their parents communicate with them on a complex level at an earlier age.
We spoke with Shira Fogel, founder of Tiny Talkers, about how this process works and what interested caregivers can do to get started.
Note: As a hearing person, Fogel is aware that she is borrowing the deaf community’s language, but she wants to be clear that her intent is never to teach full ASL. If you’re interested in studying more in depth, she’ll point you to a local instructor or community college.
How are babies able to learn to communicate so young?
The muscles in the mouth take several years before they’re strong enough to really talk well. We start to understand our kids a lot earlier, but people outside the house sometimes can’t. However, you do see little babies reach for their bottle, or their toy, that kind of thing, so the muscles in their hands develop a lot sooner.
There is a lot to it — consistency and repetition. What I tell families is, you’re already talking, so this is just like adding something extra to it. Kids do learn differently than adults, so there are definitely nuances that you need to pick up on and examples that you need to give as far as teaching.
What are some of the signs you teach?
You want to pick a handful of signs that are helpful to the kids and to you. For example, “all done,” “more,” “milk,” that kind of thing. But you don’t want to forget to add fun signs, because sometimes those are the ones that kids are more interested in, like “bird,” “dog,” or “light.”
Then there are more abstract signs, like “help” or “hurt.” With “hurt,” you would want to have a lot of repetition showing, “Oh mommy hurt herself,” you know, and purposefully bang your knee on the coffee table so they can see it. Sometimes it’s a little bit goofier than you would expect, but it’s just in a very blatant way to get kids to notice your signs. Kids are sponges though. They’re always watching.
When do you recommend parents look into this?
Typically between 6 to 9 months, kids are able to start cognitively figuring sign language out; certainly you can get started earlier.
How can people get involved with Tiny Talkers?
I have a couple different classes. One is geared towards parents and caregivers in an effort to have their undivided attention and talk through their baby’s brain development and how their baby best learns. It’s a good starter class.
Then I have weekly classes for toddlers — the Sign, Sing, and Play classes — though, at 9 months to 2 years, I’m still teaching to the caregivers. For these COVID babies, sometimes it’s their first bit of social interaction. I have another preschool class for ages 2-5 that’s a lot of fun with music and movement. We continue to learn sign language not so much for communication, but for the love of learning new things.
One of the benefits — like the only benefit — of the pandemic and things being shut down is that I did make the move to pre-record all of the classes that I offer. I’ve kept them around because it’s a nice offering to still have.
What got you interested in sign language?
As a child, if there was an event that had an interpreter, I’d always ask my parents if we could sit where I could see them. That’s one of my earlier memories, being fascinated with that. I took a few classes and then when I became a mom, I heard that using sign language with pre-verbal babies was helpful and I was really excited to start.
My oldest is now 19, so that many years ago there really was nobody, at least locally, doing what I was trying to do. I really had to spend a lot of time digging in and teaching myself, but I guess I did a good job.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
My degree is actually in environmental studies. Before Tiny Talkers, I was working with various education and government entities as a sustainability coordinator. This is going to sound really cheesy, but it really is my sentiment — I strive to just do things that leave the world a better place.
I have had so many heartfelt moments and notes from parents who’ve said “this changed my life.” In a different way, I still feel like I’m leaving the world a better place, so I’m good with it.