Signing before speaking
Experts say sign language a 'bridge to verbal language'
Twenty-one-month-old Sophia Shing stands at the front of a room filled with well over 100 parents, infants and toddlers at the Mountain View Library, enthusiastically following along with the music and motions.
She waves her hands in the air and stomps her feet, mimicking leader Jan Torpy. She even turns around to face her peers, like Torpy's little helper.
But her mother, Eris Man, said she was not always so outgoing.
"In the beginning when I would bring her to the library she would cry a lot," she said, adding that ever since her daughter attended programs like Torpy's, there has "absolutely" been improvement in Sophia's development.
Torpy is an early intervention specialist for the Santa Clara County Office of Education who teaches an Early Start program for special needs children. Every Friday this month at the downtown library, she is teaching an expanded version of her classes, "Song, Signs and Books for Infants and Toddlers," which is open to all local children.
Sign language is no longer just for the hearing impaired, Torpy says, and the kids in her program illustrate why.
"Sign language is a bridge to verbal language for children with special needs (as well as) neurotypical children," Torpy said, adding that programs like hers, utilizing movement and song, "teach them how to talk, how to anticipate what comes next."
"Babies typically like to eat books," she joked, "but if you add some music to the printed page it can help them attend to the story."
In the sessions, Torpy shows parents how to help their children move in sync with the music and lyrics. The reason this approach works, she said, is that "Developmentally, before children can imitate words they can imitate gross motor movements."
Torpy led the group in a half-hour session last Friday, singing children's songs like "If You're Happy and You Know It" while acting out the words and emotions.
Though many of the participants followed Torpy's general movements, some parents used actual sign language, which they learned in Torpy's Early Start class for young children with special needs.
She said a main focus of Early Start, a county program, is literacy.
"For babies with special needs the earlier we can get them interested in books the better," she said. Using sign and song is a way to begin that process, she said.
Diana Parkinson, who attended Friday's session with her daughter, Penny, said one of the best parts about sending her daughter to Torpy's Early Start classes is simply the interaction she gets with other children.
"It really helped her ... having a peer example to follow," she said.
It has been about eight months since she and Penny began attending the classes, and "All of the stimulation really sped up her development," she said.
Though her Early Start classes are meant specifically for students with special needs, the library program is open for all children and their parents, such as Man and Sophia. Caregivers are also welcome to bring their charges.
"I take her to different programs almost every day," Man said, adding that she frequents the Los Altos and Sunnyvale libraries, as well as a Chinese language story program. "I think it's good for her language development and social development."
Man said Sophia hears Mandarin and Cantonese at home, and so exposure to English through outside programs is essential.
"It's important for me to take her to storytime so she will learn English," she said. Even though Sophia does not speak yet, "She understands what I say."
"Songs, Signs and Books for Infants and Toddlers" is free and open to all young children ages 0-3 months and their parents or caregivers. The classes take place Fridays in January from 10:15 to 10:30 a.m. in the Community Room at the Mountain View Library, located at 585 Franklin St.